Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Sobering statistics and glimmers of hope in South Asia at SACOSAN

Fleur is attending the South Asian Conference on Sanitation and Water, or SACOSAN IV, this week to find out the challenges and opportunities in tackling the sanitation crisis in South Asia.

This week has been very exciting in South Asia - and it's got nothing to do with the cricket!

The Fourth South Asian Conference on Sanitation and Water (SACOSAN IV, #sacosan4), which takes place every two years and has done wonders in raising the political profile of sanitation in the 8 countries of South Asia, has been taking place in Sri Lanka. It is amazing that given the dire situation of sanitation in South Asia, it has to be a regional political conference which has galvanized politicians into action rather than the desperate need, but this is the reality of the lack of political will which exisits. Sanitation is the poor relative of other issues such as health and education, and this has led to a crisis for the poor which impacts every area of their lives and of economic growth for their countries.

Sacosan has encouraged those who see sanitation as an urgent issue to really champion it, has provided a forum for sharing good ideas and ways to tackle sanitation in rural an Durban communities across the region, has given a deadline and peer pressure for Governments to come to the table with real commitments, and a forum for reporting back and being accountable to the commitments made previously.

The first day saw an opening ceremony (dancing, lighting lamps) and quite a litany of depressing statistics showing the lack of sanitation currently exisiting across the region. Of the 2.6 billion people around the world who don’t have access to sanitation (i.e. a good enough toilet to not be a health risk, and waste water treatment, and hygiene education), 72% are in South Asia. Open defecation is practiced (that makes it sounds like a nice choice, which it isn’t) by the majority of people across the region (65%). In India 69% of people have no toilet, in Bangladesh it is 47% and in Pakistan it is 55%. Stark and sobering numbers there.

The links made between poor sanitation and poor health have been emphasized constantly, and Daniel Toole from UNICEF listed some of the many health problems caused by lack of sanitation: deaths from diarrhea, malnourishment, worm infestation which causes disease and affects concentration in school, polio can’t be eradicated without good hygiene, women’s ‘imprisonment by daylight’ as they wait for dark to go and defecate, and absenteeism from school by girls. ‘The clock is ticking fast towards the MDGs. There is little time left and vast numbers of people without sanitation’ he warned. His assessment is that the political will is now being proven but needs to accelearate in this life or death issue.

Speeches have been made from leaders at the World Health Organisation, the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme, WaterAid, from civil society groups, from the UN advisory board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB) and from WSSCC.

Amongst the rather dismal tale of statistics, behind which there are millions of tales of hardship, thwarted ambition, fear, pain and sadness, I was listening for some stories of success. Certainly there have been great gains in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and essential ingredients for success shared will not be new to End Water Poverty members but are worth emphasizing and sharing

  • Women’s empowerment and involvement
  • Strong inter-sectoral collaboration (water, health, finance and planning need to work together)
  • The critical role of the health sector in wanting to prevent disease and not just cure it, and so change their policies according and invest in community awareness
  • Community led models which build demand for better sanitation and make good use of small household investments
  • The need to build political commitment (which is where End Water Poverty comes in).

So far there has been a lot of agreement about the sanitation crisis in South Asia, but the end of the conference will show if the governments are willing to come together and commit to actions by certain deadlines. The time for fine words alone is passed – I hope.

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