Prioritising sanitation

Access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation facilities is a promise successive governments have been making and something that political parties have stated in their election manifestos.

Unfortunately, progress on this has been far from satisfactory. While different governments, both in the centre and in the provinces, have launched ambitious programmes in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Sector (WASH) sector in the past, these have somehow fallen short of expectations.

Technical and administrative glitches related to implementation, lack of capacity and coordination on the part of the concerned government departments, disruption in flow of required development funds or their diversion to schemes in other sectors etc are the main reasons why such plans have failed to deliver. The fact that these programmes were designed with short-term objectives in mind, and an absence of there being a long-term policy to provide guiding principles, has also rendered them ineffective.

With every change of government, the initiatives taken by the outgoing setup are rolled backed or altered to suit the agenda of the newcomers. Quite understandably, they (the newcomers) have not been willing to take ownership of the initiatives taken by their predecessors. They do not want them to get credit if these initiatives start paying dividends and so they discontinue release of government funds required to keep such projects functional.

In the case of Punjab and Sindh, even ruling parties enjoying multiple tenures have failed to make a difference in the WASH sector, despite claiming it to be a high-priority area. One can recall how billions of rupees were pumped into the Saaf Pani Project of the PML-N government in Punjab but it could not reach the execution stage. Similarly, the unsatisfactory performance of the Sindh government led to the formation of a judicial commission by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The commission is supposed to make the provincial government take immediate steps for provision of safe drinking water to the people of the province, with a special emphasis on underdeveloped areas like Thar.

Against this backdrop, there is an encouraging development in Punjab that needs to be replicated in other provinces. The Punjab Assembly has passed resolutions on the provision of safe drinking water to the people of Punjab and ensuring toilet facilities within five years. The point worth noticing is that the resolution, presented by a ruling PTI MPA Nadeem Qureshi and seven others from both the treasury and the opposition benches, demands of the sitting government to judiciously spend the whole Rs21 billion earmarked for this purpose during the current fiscal year. In the past, most of the funds allocated for the WASH sector would remain under-utilised or get diverted to other politically-motivated projects that had greater visibility.

Similarly, the resolution urging the Punjab government to make the province free of open defecation within five years highlights an area that has remained ignored to a great extent. The house has given the PTI government the target as well as the deadline. The MPAs who presented the resolution urged the government to make it binding on all the concerned departments to utilise the allocated funds in the best possible way, and strive to meet the targets.

One may question what is so special about these resolutions. The answer is that this is for the first time that even members of the ruling party have bound their government in the province not to divert WASH-sector funds to any other, show tangible progress in this field and make the whole population start using toilets within the next five years. Another plus point is that the sitting provincial cabinet has approved the Punjab Water Policy, which will provide the guiding principles once it is adopted. This means the government will hardly have any excuse and will be answerable to the House. The Sindh province has taken the lead by formulating its water policy much before Punjab but Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are lagging behind.

The point here is that, despite all this, the desired results cannot be achieved till the time the people realise the importance of WASH facilities and demand these from the government instead of roads, flyovers, mass transit projects etc. It is a common observation that voters, especially those in rural areas, hardly ask politicians to announce sanitation schemes in their areas. That is why streets and fields there are always inundated in sewerage water.

Lack of awareness about the harm of poor WASH facilities is one big reason why people are not so demanding in this respect. It is imperative they stand up now and seek government intervention in this field without any delay. As per estimates, around 53,000 children die every year from diarrhoea and the economic cost of poor WASH services that cause such deaths is around 3.94 percent of Pakistan’s GDP. The contamination of sources of drinking water with sewerage water also leads to deadly diseases and casualties.

Statistics on open defecation are also quite alarming. The UN points out that 22 million Pakistanis relieve themselves in the open. In Punjab, 17 percent population does not have access to toilet facilities. The situation is even worse in Rajanpur, Muzaffargarh and Dera Ghazi Khan where the rate of uncovered population is as high as 40 percent when it comes to access to proper toilet facilities.

Public pressure is necessary also because lack of toilet facilities is known to lead to sexual harassment of women going to open fields for toilet purposes. The dropout ratio among school-going girls is also high, especially in southern Punjab, because their schools lack proper toilet facilities. The Punjab government’s departments, with the support of INGOs like WaterAid UK, have done pilot projects in southern Punjab and developed low-cost toilet facilities that even poor households can afford. Now it is up to the government to scale up such initiatives and persuade the uncovered population to spend on toilet facilities. They will realise the benefits are far more than the cost.

The original story published in The News.

Shahzada Irfan

Shahzada Irfan is currently responsible for writing news reports, covering daily events, occcasionally writing columns and maintaining a blog. My assignment is part of the 2009 Daniel Pearl Fellowsip, that brings mid-career journalists from developing Muslim countries to the United States, for a period of six months.

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