PAKISTAN faces a crisis that threatens the lives of millions of Pakistanis every year. It is also a crisis which in its resolution offers the potential for increased wealth, health and dignity for the whole country.
This crisis is in our access to water and, in particular, sanitation. They are the most basic of daily human needs, human rights recognised in international conventions to which Pakistan is a signatory, yet still far from the reach of many ordinary Pakistanis.
Pakistan is due to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the number of people without access to water by 2017. However, the situation for sanitation is bleak: 43 million people still defecate in the open, and the sanitation MDG may not be met until 2027.
The public health implications are severe. Some three million Pakistanis face infections from waterborne diseases every year. Children are especially affected by illnesses such as diarrhoea, often caused by unsafe water and inadequate sanitation, and killing more under-fives around the world than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.
Tackling this public health blight could bring huge economic dividends, with research from the WHO showing that every $1 invested in sanitation returns $4 to the wider economy. It could also advance gender equality and education, with women no longer forced to search in the dark for a place to defecate or look after children absent from school due to lack of sanitation or menstrual hygiene facilities. However, to do this requires a new policy approach.
During reconstruction after the 2010 floods, NGOs built thousands of latrines and water supply schemes. But despite the good intentions many systems were unsustainable due to the lack of operation and maintenance training given to local populations.
There was a culture of subsidy in calamity-hit areas. Local authorities absolved themselves of responsibility for water and sanitation systems and instead looked to external donors. But many private water service providers refuse to cover operation and maintenance costs due to low tariffs and poor profitability. Access to water and sanitation, a human right essential to lives and livelihoods, must be protected and fulfilled, regardless of profitability.
There is a lack of policy on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in Pakistan, and where it exists it tends to be poorly informed and often implemented without consulting local people.
In order for Pakistan’s water and sanitation policies to succeed, two things need to happen. First, cabinet members should approve funding for water and sanitation programmes for the provinces, where local solutions can then be employed. This would address the crucial need for more policy and funding for sanitation at the national level.
Second, policies need to provide room for localised solutions by facilitating local participation in innovation and decision-making on water and sanitation systems. It is common sense that the people who access WASH projects are the people who will best know the cultural context and feasibility of a local project. Now that provinces are responsible for the management of water resources under the 18th Amendment, we hope to see the application of more local solutions to complex contexts of water and sanitation.
National and provincial politicians have allocated funds to water and sanitation. But in places like Fata, KP, interior Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan, open defecation is practised widely and using a toilet in the home is considered to be taboo. The solution is about more than funding. As Jan Eliasson, UN deputy secretary general, says, we must dismantle taboos: “As was the case for the word ‘toilets’ a few years ago, it is time to incorporate ‘open defecation’ in the political language and in diplomatic discourse.”
Raising the political profile of water and sanitation can also be boosted by demand from the Pakistani people, who have already shown their mass concern for this issue. Last year, Pakistanis contributed nearly 500,000 signatures to a global petition calling on decision-makers to keep to their promises on water and sanitation.
The World Walks for Water and Sanitation, coordinated by the End Water Poverty coalition that I am a member of, runs from March 15-23 to coincide with World Water Day. It is the world’s largest mobilisation for water and sanitation and one of the largest annual mobilisations of any kind. We ask that as many people as possible join us to ask their political parties to include sanitation in their manifestos as well as demand legislation recognising water and sanitation as a basic human right.
Tackling sanitation must be a central concern of government, and we, as citizens, must remind our leaders that we face a severe public health crisis, but one that which if we invest in the right way we can overcome and in doing so increase our national wealth, both economic and moral.
The writer is executive director of the NGO, Integrated Regional Support Programme.