Uniting a global WASH response with an evidence-based approach: the WASH Severity Classification

January 22, 2021

When the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) was originally created in 2004, the impetus came from the humanitarian community’s need to understand food security crises faster and with greater precision, so as to shape a more effective response. The IPC has since then become a landmark in the fight against food insecurity. Decades later however, a similar approach- where vast and various data sources are fed into a recognized and trusted analysis system- has yet to emerge in the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector. With this in mind, a new inter-agency global initiative was launched, with the support and early buy-in from over twenty aid organizations. As the pilots of this new approach have yielded their first results, we are glad to introduce the new WASH Severity Classification (WSC).

The WASH Severity Classification (WSC) is a set of tools and protocols designed to enable analysts from humanitarian and development organizations to measure the severity of WASH conditions across various crises and time- through an evidence-based approach that uses recognized standards.

As a system, the WSC aims to bring all WASH actors together and pool all relevant data sources in the process, to build a shared understanding among all stakeholders on how to analyze the available data and trigger better response interventions. Taking this consensus-based approach ensures for greater transparency and credibility of results among the WASH community.


In brief, the WSC’s mandate is to:

  • Classify geographic areas within a country with different WASH severity scores;
  • Provide a shared understanding of the magnitude, duration, and drivers of severity in specific areas and for specific population groups;
  • Quantify the number of individuals in different severity contexts, to differentiate the degree of urgency, and better tailor aid interventions.

Transforming complex data into actionable information

Over the past decade, the WASH sector has generally achieved very encouraging results in terms of improving data availability. Yet the absence of a recognized and standardized framework to transform complex data into actionable information has become a major bottleneck in decision-making processes. This strategic gap has prevented the sector as a whole from effectively delivering evidence-based planning, response prioritization, optimal resource allocation, and advocacy.



UNICEF and the Global WASH Cluster, in partnership with REACH, are spearheading an effort to launch the WSC as a solution.

Currently in early development, the WSC approach has been piloted in Afghanistan and Burkina Faso, where successive joint analysis workshops were held to test the concept and showcase its early potential. This process was supported by the feedback gained from 20+ organizations present during the pilots. The WSC also benefits from the presence of flagship actors in its Steering Committee and Technical Advisory Group to support its development, such as the Global WASH Cluster, UNICEF, ECHO, Save the Children, Action contre la Faim, International Rescue Committee, UNHCR, Centre for Humanitarian Change, BHA, Oxfam, Tufts University, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and IMPACT Initiatives.

Whilst still in development, and with pilot outputs newly published, the WSC has shown potential in its ability to collaboratively overcome traditional challenges:

  • The WSC can provide a standardized system to summarize complex, multi-dimensional realities into easily accessible findings that can be directly plugged into decision-making processes;
  • The WSC can enable WASH data to translate effectively into evidence-based planning, strengthening the capacity for flagship humanitarian planning milestones to embrace a solid, evidence-based approach;
  • The WSC can support better fund-raising and advocacy to respond to critical WASH contexts by identifying funding requirements, and targeting the right response at the right time.

Predictability and preparedness

While understanding the severity of current WASH conditions is key to informing immediate response priorities, analyzing how the conditions are likely to evolve is critical for response preparedness and early warning mechanisms.

The WSC provides the “full picture” of the situation on the ground, regarding risks and vulnerability. It maximizes the full potential of data generated by current initiatives focused on identifying needs (like the JIAF) and capitalizes on this for the purpose of preparedness.

The WSC is able to “predict” the level of risks against established thresholds, and to alert and trigger a united response from the community of WASH actors to crisis situations. ¨

Another facet of the WSC’s potential is its ability to provide a comparison of WASH conditions within and across crises over time.



As further testament to the need for such a system and its early buy-in from WASH actors around the world, the two pilots implemented in Afghanistan and Burkina Faso yielded positive feedback from actors present during the workshops:

Very useful for the WASH sector. To understand planning and what measures can be taken in the future” – Workshop participant, WASH actor.

“For sure, the output of WSC is highly valuable in our work, we can use for planning, budgeting, and target interventions based on a geographical point of view” – Workshop participant, WASH actor.

WSC is very important, and has a potential key role in allocating the budget for the HRP/HNO” – Workshop participant, WASH actor.

Measuring the Severity Phase

The pilots conducted in Afghanistan and Burkina Faso show the results of the first WSC outputs, representing a key milestone in this initial phase of development. The pilots are indicative of what is to come in the near future, with further implementations and development work scheduled for the coming year.

In Afghanistan, the first WSC pilot workshop was held from 7-15 October 2020, uniting over 30 participants coming from 21 humanitarian and development WASH organisations, including government agencies, United Nations (UN) agencies, and NGOs.

To pilot the WSC system in Afghanistan, three provinces were selected for analysis, whilst future WSC exercises are expected to be implemented nationwide.


Among the key findings from the WSC pilot in Afghanistan:

  • All of the Phase 5 (Catastrophic) population was located in Kunduz, where households reportedly have insufficient water for drinking purposes.
  • Sharp conflict escalations in Hilmand and Kunduz provinces are key drivers of WASH severity in those areas, due to mass displacement, damaged infrastructure, lack of service provision and restricted humanitarian access;
  • COVID-19 has further decreased the availability of WASH items on markets, and reduced the capacity for families to access WASH needs;
  • On top of COVID-19, conflict and climate trends are also key risk factors to monitor in regards to WASH conditions.

For greater detail on the key findings above, and a provincial breakdown of the WSC analysis, please feel free to access the pilot overview: https://www.impact-repository.org/document/reach/bd2d79a4/REACH_GLO_Situation-Overview_WSC_Afghanistan-pilot_October-2020.pdf.

The report also contains more information on methodology, and the process for calculating Phase Severity.

In Burkina Faso, the first WSC pilot was held from November 24th to the 4th of December 2020, with nearly 50 participants representing 19 WASH stakeholders.

Like the pilot in Afghanistan, three provinces in Burkina Faso were selected to facilitate the analysis for the pilot workshop.



Among the key findings:

  • Gourma province was classified Phase 4 (Critical).
  • Over half of the population assessed across the three provinces are classified either in Phase 3 or Phase 4 of WASH Severity.
  • Security, conflict, and climate change are also key factors driving WASH severity in Burkina Faso.

Burkina Faso’s WSC pilot overview is available here: https://www.impact-repository.org/document/reach/451f2be3/REACH_GLO_Situation-Overview_WSC_BFA-pilot_December-2020.pdf

Making a difference in the WASH sector

Having a WASH severity classification will make information available more quickly, and in a standardized format, about the changing situation on the ground.  This will:

  • Increase visibility of the severity of the WASH situation, ranking situations from Phase 1 (least severe) to Phase 5 (most severe).
  • Provide decision-makers with a tool to help allocate funds to areas of greatest needs.
  • Identify more quickly areas of chronic emergencies where durable solutions are needed.

The WSC has also been designed to speak fluently with the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) tool led by FAO/WFP. It also harmonizes with other globally recognized data initiatives, such as the Joint Intersectoral Analysis Framework (JIAF) led by OCHA and the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) led by UNICEF/WHO.

The WSC is the next step in the flow of transforming data that identifies needs/gaps into information that predicts and prepares us for emerging crises in the WASH sector- and beyond.

Presenting the WASH Severity Classification at the Global WASH Cluster Annual Meeting – 25th Edition

On Wednesday 28th of April, the IMPACT Initiatives Global WASH Cluster Assessment Specialist Rebecka Rydberg delivered a 45 minute long presentation (Q&A included) on the WASH Severity Classification. Feel free to view the recording below to recap’ all that was said and explored during the presentation.

The presentation is also available for download here: GWC25_SatEvents_PPT_WSC_28APR2021

For more information

In the meantime, we encourage interested parties to reach out to the dedicated email for any queries, wsc@reach-initiative.org, or sign-up to the WSC newsletter if you are interested in joining the WSC Community and receiving future updates.