Nepal WASH Blog Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) & Development in Nepal

November 7, 2011

South Asia struggles to tackle sanitation crisis: Can SAARC make a difference?

Filed under: Advocacy,MDG,Sanitation — Anita Pradhan @ 9:00 am

Talking about shit is neither romantic nor attractive for both politicians and media. But it is a reality in South Asia, where more than one billion people simply don’t have toilet to perform their natural functions, out of that about 700 million men, women and children defecate in open in highly undignified manner in remote rural villages to poor and informal urban localities in metropolitan cities .  They are exposed to severe health risks, violence and adding to environmental pollution. Majority of schools in all the countries don’t have toilets and hand washing facilities for children, hence a chance to change behaviour in next generation is missed out.

Economically better performing region in the time of global economic slowdown is facing daunting health challenges emanating from basic sanitation and hygiene, the problem which developed world faced and resolved in early 18th century as a fundamental to human development.  This deficit in human development might be consequential for future economic development potential. The economic, social and environmental consequences of this situation are globally known.  The World Bank estimates that the consequences of inad­equate sanitation cost India approximately USD 53.8 billion – 6.4 % of GDP – every year and Bangladesh BDT 295.5 billion (US$4.2 billion)-6.3% of GDP. In India alone every day, more than 1,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhoea caused by dirty water, lack of toilets and poor hygiene, placing India – in the top spot in world diarrhoea rankings. With Pakistan and Bangladesh, two other South Asian nations follow close behind.

Why is this pathetic condition are socially and politically accepted in the region, which otherwise inspires the world in many areas, or put another way how this very basic developmental challenge has been addressed by developed countries? The single most factors we found are public sector investment and greater political commitment at higher level which transformed the societies.  There is political commitment to change but not at required levels, with new policies and investment for public services but not adequate. The region also faces the inherent problem of exclusion.  The biggest, and often overlooked, problems of exclusion and inequality deny millions of poor and marginalised people of their basic rights.

Digging deeper into the issues, early this year three non-governmental organizations carried out a review with a cross section of poor and marginalized social groups across Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Srilanka seek qualitative information on people’s understanding of sanitation, their sanitation and hygiene practices, the status of sanitation infrastructure and facilities in their communities, and their reflections on why interventions and projects in their settlements had succeeded or failed.

However the collection of voices from diverse people and communities that follow different cultures and traditions, live under different governments and regimes, and face different struggles and hardships, when comes to sanitation and hygiene they seem to speak almost the same language and some very clear messages have emerged from the review. The people in South Asian want a ‘clean’ and ‘healthy’ environment for themselves and their families. They aspire for dignity, privacy and freedom from a life of shame and embarrassment of defecating in the open. They want functional toilets, waste water disposal systems, and adequate and regular arrangements for disposal of solid waste.

People believe that sanitation programmes and projects have failed because of a lack of involvement and commitment from both communities and external agencies and the consequent lapses in technology, planning, implementation, supervision, support and, above all, accountability. For making services sustainable and programmes successful, the quality of construction work should be improved, minimizing vested interest group to benefit, controlling corruption and establishing an effective operation and maintenance system.

The overarching message emerged from peoples’ voices across the region is that their political leadership must take a collective resolve in the region to promote right to sanitation and dignified lives,  work to provide them and their children a disease free and healthy environment.  How this aspiration could be translated into a reality when region faces political hostilities and struggling to share a common regional development vision. Can the sanitation be a joining factor in this unfriendly political environment?

The head of government from South Asia will be gathering in southern island of Maldives for 17th SAARC summit in early November. In 25 years and 16 summits, Sanitation has never been on the agenda of SAARC. People in South Asia are looking to see a country comes forward to stop them drowning in sea of shit. SAARC has demonstrated that it can make things happen with political will on the back.  There are several successes on the credit to SAARC.

It is a high time for SAARC political leadership to come up with clear and ambitious targets, timeline and cash for sanitation- if South Asia makes progress-World makes progress on sanitation MDGs. SAARC leadership need to recognize that sanitation is the building block of dignified society in South Asia. They must recognize ‘sanitation crisis in the region, diarrhoea is the biggest child killer in the region.

There is a greater challenge of inequity in resource distribution and service provision. National governments need to engage pro-actively to provide stronger political leadership to WASH; SAARC can encourage such moves by national governments. They need to work out a regional mechanism for implementation, coordination, research and knowledge sharing and steering the plan through the existing SAARC secretariat and strengthening South Asian Conference on Sanitation process.

Information on WASH sector finance and service provision is inadequate coupled with data inconsistencies, definitional issues- hence creating bottlenecks to measure progress and ensure accountability. SAARC Governments need to work together to strengthen monitoring and financial reporting and improve transparency over WASH budget allocations and expenditure to ensure poor and most marginalized are being measure and targeted.

Honourable president of Nepal has recently launched a national master plan on sanitation and hygiene which demonstrates resolve of Government of Nepal to address the sanitation challenge. Government of Nepal will also be hosting South Asian Conference on Sanitation-V in 2013 and most probably next SAARC conference, it will be highly feasible for the government of Nepal to take the lead and bring sanitation agenda into SAARC chapter.  Since the sanitation challenge is beyond the control of single country-though it is the primary responsibility of each state to provide basic sanitation facilities to each citizen but there is greater potential for cooperation and learning in the region to tackle this human crisis with collective wisdom, collaboration and political backing.

The coming 17th SAARC summit in Maldives in early November this year will be a great opportunity for government of Nepal to provide the missing leadership to the this important but otherwise ignored sector  and mobilize greater political will in this important regional forum. This will facilitate the government of Nepal to demonstrate not only the success at home through sanitation and hygiene master plan and hosting next SACOSAN but also bringing the required push from SAARC and implementing joint resolve through SAARC secretariat which is also located in Kathmandu.

The post is written by Mr Mustafa Talpur (email – ),  Regional Advocacy Manager, WaterAid.

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