The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) government has announced an interesting health initiative under which a cell phone app will help direct users to public toilets across the province. News reports have quoted a provincial water and sanitation services official as saying that the app will be launched on November 19 and will be particularly helpful for tourists. Also, while many in Pakistan are quick to mock India for its low toilet usage numbers, the numbers here, though not as abysmal, are still a cause for concern. The United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef estimated last year that 22 million Pakistanis still regularly relieve themselves in the open, and less than half of the rural population has any access to toilets.
Unicef also estimates that the lack of toilets costs Pakistan up to $2.5 billion per year through increased healthcare costs and lost productivity. Around 53,000 Pakistani children are estimated to die each year of diarrhoea alone, primarily because of consuming polluted water from streams which are often ‘used’ in lieu of toilets, according to UN data. Meanwhile, typhoid, cholera, dysentery and hepatitis also kill thousands, while those who do not die often have lifelong ailments. The high stunting rate for children — 44% according to the UN — can partly be attributed to this.
Among the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s healthcare-related election promises, Prime Minister Imran Khan has previously vowed to “eradicate the deficit of toilets in the country by 2023”, an ambitious target, but certainly achievable. In the meantime, directing people to the nearest facility is a start, but we would also hope that the government improves the pitiful condition of many of these existing toilets while taking care not to cut corners in the construction of new ones. A warning of sorts came a few days ago in India, where two children were killed when the substandard wall of a public toilet collapsed on the stalls they were using.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2019.