Will Sanitation find a place in the agenda of 17th SAARC Summit?

More than a billion people do not have access to toilets in South Asia. Over 700 million of these people defecate in the open and get exposed to severe health risks, violence besides adding to environmental pollution. On top of this, majority of schools without toilets and hand washing facilities, which restrict the behaviour change in the next generation, are only making the situation worse. The above situation has brought the South Asian at a crossroad where though they are performing better economically but at the same time facing daunting health challenges.

Ironically, this problem was resolved in the developed world as early as 18th century, after a realisation that sanitation and hygiene are the fundamentals to human development.

However, this deficit in human development may pose a barrier in the future economic growth of South Asian nations.  The World Bank estimates that the consequences of inadequate sanitation cost India approximately USD 53.8 billion (6.4 % of GDP), annually. Similarly, Bangladesh is losing USD 4.2 billion (6.3% of GDP) per year. 

In India alone, more than 1,000 children under the age of five die every year due to diarrhoea caused by dirty water and poor hygiene. The situation places India in the top spot in the world diarrhoea rankings with Pakistan and Bangladesh closely following.

The question is why such a pathetic condition is socially and politically accepted in the South Asian is region? The predominant factor is lack of public sector investment and negligible or no political commitment at higher level, which has otherwise brought a change in the developed world.

“There is political commitment to change but it is not of the desired level. There are policies and investments but they are not adequate. The region also faces the inherent problem of exclusion which denies millions of poor and marginalised people of their basic rights,” says Mustafa Talpur of UK based charity WateAid, in Pakistan.

Digging deeper into the issue, early this year three non-government organisations carried out a study involving a cross section of poor and marginalised social groups across Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The study sought information on people’s understanding of sanitation, their sanitation and hygiene practices, the status of sanitation infrastructure and facilities in the communities and their reflections on why interventions and projects in their settlements had succeeded or failed.

The collection of voices of diverse people from diverse geographical and political backgrounds, echoed with each other. A common message that emerged from the study is that “People in South Asia 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. 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 lack of involvement and commitment from both communities and external agencies –government or non-government. Besides there had been lapses in technology, planning, implementation, supervision, support, and above all, accountability. They suggested that in order to make services sustainable and programmes successful, the quality of construction work should be improved, corruption should be controlled and an effective operation and maintenance system should be established.

A common but predominant message emerged from peoples’ voices across the region was that their political leaderships must take a collective resolve in the region to promote right to sanitation and assure dignified lives to people by providing them and their children with a disease-free and healthy environment.

Now the question emerges as to how the people’s aspirations could be translated into a reality when the region is facing political hostilities and struggling to share a common regional development vision?

The answer can evolve from the 17th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) slated to be held this month in the southern island of Maldives where the heads of the governments in the South Asian nations will gather for the summit. Incidentally, during last 16 summits in 25 years time sanitation had never been on the agenda of SAARC Summit.
The meeting should focus on clear and ambitious targets, appropriate timelines and sufficient funds for sanitation in order to help South Asian nations achieve their Millennium Development Goals. The Summit must recognise the sanitation crisis in the region where diarrhoea is the biggest child killer.

The Summit members need to act proactively to provide stronger political leadership to WASH (Water Sanitation Hygiene) issues.  They can encourage their respective national governments in this regard. They need to work out a regional mechanism for implementation, co-ordination, research and knowledge sharing and steering the plan through the existing SAARC secretariat and strengthening the process of South Asian Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN).

Information related to finance and service provisions, is inadequate in the WASH sector and this becomes worse due to data inconsistencies and definitional issues. This leads to bottlenecks in monitoring and accountability. SAARC Governments need to work together to strengthen monitoring and financial reporting and improve transparency over WASH budget allocations and expenditure to ensure that poor and marginalised section of the society is covered.

India, being a large, politically stable and economically growing nation should take up the responsibility to raise the issue in the Summit. The nation can also offer to lead the rest of the SAARC nations in ensuring a clean, pollution and disease-free environment to the citizens of this region.

Alka Pande
(The author is a senior journalist based in Lucknow, India)