The World Water Day, which was celebrated on March 22, was a time to reflect on the importance of water in our lives. Safe drinking water is a vital factor that ensures the health of children and their families. Just as essential is access to basic sanitation.
Every 24 hours, 320 children die in Pakistan from diarrhea — the result of a deadly combination of unsafe water and poor sanitation conditions. Similarly, water and sanitation-related diseases in the country are responsible for some 60 per cent of the deaths of children under five years of age.
Diarrhea contributes to, and aggravates malnutrition, which is an underlying cause of over half the deaths of children under five. Poor sanitation also has a serious impact on children’s attendance at school due to water and sanitation-related diseases. In addition, girls tend to drop out of school and female teachers may not work where there are no gender-segregated toilets. Women, as the primary caregivers of sick children, have less time to care for other children and to do other work, when they have to care for the ill.
Water, sanitation and hygiene-related diseases cost Pakistan’s economy an estimated Rs112 billion each year, according to a 2006 World Bank study. This economic loss is due to labour hours lost or reduced productivity, with household and public resources being diverted to curative services.
Although the world has met the global UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of people without access to improved water sources, progress towards sanitation access remains the most off-track of all the MDGs in Pakistan. With over 40 million people lacking access to basic sanitation in Pakistan, children continue to pay with their health and lives, according to the new 2012 Joint Monitoring Report by WHO and Unicef.
Sanitation means access to and the use of functional toilets, that ensure privacy and dignity, contributing to a hygienic living environment for all. Apart from the health consequences, lack of access to bathrooms takes a heavy toll on human dignity. In order to make progress towards universal access to sanitation, it must be recognised as a basic human right.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by 158 countries, recognises that “everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living”. In addition, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women obliges governments to ensure that rural women have access to sanitation.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child notes the right of all children to an adequate standard of living, which includes access to clean drinking water and latrines.
In July 2010, the UN General Assembly recognised the right to water and sanitation. Addressing sanitation as a human right helps to move the focus from technical solutions to ensuring that the political and legislative frameworks are in place to ensure its access.
Encouraging progress is being made through the Pakistan Approach to Total Sanitation, endorsed by federal and provincial governments. One component of this is government facilitation of access to sanitation by ensuring that appropriate standards are in place to assist individuals in constructing and maintaining toilets, while promoting hygiene education. Following the 2010 and 2011 floods, the Unicef has worked with the government and civil society partners to scale-up rural sanitation in flood-affected areas. By the end of 2012, 7.6 million people in 34 flood-affected districts will be reached through hygiene promotion, model latrines and drainage and wastewater improvements.
There is still much to be done to ensure that every individual in Pakistan has access to improved sanitation facilities. The aim must be to have affordable latrines that provide privacy, a safe and dignified environment accessible to all, with sustained maintenance.
Ensuring sustainable access to sanitation is a priority that is absolutely central to the health and well-being of children and their families in Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 23rd, 2012.