Responses to man-made and natural disasters have frequently been disjointed, inappropriate and inefficient, as a result of a lack of perspective of ‘bigger picture’ actions and processes. These experiences, in particular those of the 2004 Asian tsunami disaster response, highlight the need for a framework for disaster response, and the lessons learned from them provide the basis for recommended actions in post-disaster scenarios. The objective for the International Water Association (IWA) – the leading professional association dealing with all aspects of water management – in preparing a ‘Response and Recovery Framework’ was to provide orientation and guidance to its members seeking to participate in disaster response efforts. The framework aims to illustrate the progression of disaster response for the water and sanitation sector, including priorities and actions to be taken during various stages of response. From a meta-analysis of lessons learned, the basic structure of a typical response covers immediate aftermath (0–7 days); short term (next 3 months); and medium to long term (next 3–12 months). This framework provides a broad overview of the priority actions and emphasis during these phases, and is augmented by boxed material and references highlighting real cases.