Three years back, Pakistan had made commitment at the 3rd South Asian Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN) to improve access of the people to safe water and sanitation and hammer out and put in place policies and programmes to achieve this. But, the country is way behind as far as implementation of the commitments is concerned.
The 3rd SACOSAN took place in New Delhi in 2008 under the theme of ‘Sanitation for Dignity and Health’. The conference was attended by country representatives of the all South Asian countries to discuss state of water and sanitation issues and challenges in their respective countries to come up with strategies to tackle them.
Along with the other South Asian countries, Pakistan had recognised ‘access to safe sanitation and drinking water as a fundamental human right’ at the SACOSAN and pledged to incorporate water and sanitation in the country’s Constitution as basic human rights.
Federal Minister for Environment at that time, Hameedullah Jan Afridi had made commitments that the government of Pakistan, within an stipulated timeframe, would assign priority to sanitation, improve conditions of sanitary workers and leave no stone unturned to achieve Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) within deadline of 2015, ensure basic access to improved sanitation facilities to all by reducing disparities by means of substantial budgetary allocations, with pro-active participation, contribution, decision-making and deepening sense of ownership among communities.
The SACOSAN conference is a high-powered ministerial meeting. The first conference was held in 2003 in Bangladesh, second in 2006 in Islamabad and third in 2008 in New Dehli.
The fourth SACOSAN is set to open this year in Colombo from April 4 and will conclude on April 9.
So far it seems all governments in the region, except Sri Lanka and Maldives, have been unable to implement actions and commitments they subscribed to at the 3rd SACOSAN with regard to ameliorating the state of access to sanitation.
According to WaterAid’s report ‘Sanitation Crisis Continues in South Asia’, some 1.027 billion (64 per cent) out of 1.595 billion people in the region lack access to improved sanitation and almost every second person practices open defecation.
The report highlights that almost two-thirds of the population in the region face indignity everyday simply for performing the natural function of defection. Besides, around 716 million people out of the 1.027 billion, who are without improved sanitation facilities practices open defection and thus are exposed to severe health risks.
The report also notes that in Pakistan some 45 per cent people use improved sanitation facilities while 90 per cent have access to improved drinking water sources. But, water and sanitation experts dispute the findings, saying that situation is worse than the figure shows.
As it pledged, the Pakistani government failed to incorporate ‘access to safe sanitation’ in the national constitution. No progress was made either on the second major commitment made at the 3rd SACOSAN ministerial summit, which was to pay adequate attention to capacity building of the local government and improving working conditions of sanitary workers.
The Pakistani government had also made commitment that it would establish a performance monitoring mechanism for sanitation. But, no such move has been adopted.
“Failure to achieve the SACOSAN targets demonstrates the government’s lack of seriousness towards improving people’s safe access to the sanitation,” said Abdul Hafeez, of the WaterAid – Pakistan.
Child mortality in the country is around 97 in every 1,000 births, while diarrhea accounts for 14 per cent of the total deaths. Estimated annual diarrhea deaths in 2008 were put at 59,220 – second to India, where around 413,400 die from diarrhea, according to WaterAid - Pakistan.
“In Pakistan, poor sanitation has emerged to be a major obstacle in the fight against child mortality. Strong political will is direly needed to address this crisis,” said a senior official in the federal ministry of environment, who preferred anonymity.
Both the costs associated with lack of access to safe water and sanitation and benefits obtained from it are very important for the poor segment of the society.
The ratio of economic benefits from investment of US $1 in water and sanitation infrastructure is estimated to yield benefits to the tune of US $9 in developing countries like Pakistan (WHO 2008).
Under MDG, Pakistan has committed to achieve target by 2015 of halving the proportion of people without access to safe and improved sanitation. It is not possible without increasing water supply and sanitation coverage to 93 per cent and 90 per cent, respectively, by 2015. (Water Supply and Sanitation Programme, Planning Commission of Pakistan)
Besides, the country’s sanitation policy 2006 envisages that 100 per cent population shall have access to safe sanitation before 2015.
“But, seeing the current pace of work on the sanitation, the country is unlikely to achieve the sanitation MDG before 2028,” said Mustafa Talpur, Regional Advocacy & Policy Advisor of WaterAid - Pakistan.
Following devolution of power in 2001, under the Local Government Ordinance (LGO) 2001, it was felt that provision of water and sanitation services needed to improve from the abysmally dismal state. A large portion of urban and rural areas were intended to receive services and programmes and funds were earmarked. But, such intentions never transpired into reality.
However, the complications of the devolved system mean urban areas have benefited but the rural areas still face the same uphill task.
The yawing urban-rural disparity in the use improved sanitation facilities is a cause of serious concern.
According to WHO, only 29 per cent people in rural Pakistan have access to improved sanitation facilities. These are the people who spend estimated over 60 per cent of their household income to fight different water-borne diseases. On the other hand, estimated 72 per cent people in urban areas have access to improved sanitation.
The Pakistan Strategic Environmental Assessment (World Bank 2006) concludes that environmental degradation costs more than 365 billion annually, substantial portion of which comes from ailing water and sanitation infrastructure.
However, given the pace of work political will and allocation of funds for strengthening water and sanitation infrastructure, achieving Sanitation MDG in Pakistan seems to be a distant reality.
There is strong need that policy makers, politicians and those at the helm of affairs realise unprecedented socio-economic benefits of the improved access to safe water, adequate sanitation.
“Neglectful of this realisation on their part will have grave socio-economic and health-related repercussions on the economic development of the country,” warned Mustafa Talpur.