It took a long time for Bhutan to acknowledge the benefits of sanitation and hygiene.

The sight of public toilets filled with stones and sticks, overflowing with faeces and a dry taps​ ha​ve been an eyesore to those who need ​to use a rest room. While we do blame culture to an extent, as we tend to do in several cases, the state of such basic facilities has compelled the public to defecate in the open, be it in towns or villages.

We are now seeing this change, albeit slowly. Communities are building toilets that are accessible and useable while volunteers through the Bhutan Toilet Organisation are cleaning up public toilets.  Mongar was recently declared the first dzongkhag to achieve an open defecation free status. In total, 39 gewogs in five dzongkhags have achieved the open defecation free status and 100 percent improved sanitation coverage so far. These changes are commendable but the challenge remains in sustaining such progress.

For the absence of open defecation does not necessarily mean that our sanitation practices have improved. Communities and institutions still face problems in accessing regular water supply for toilets as well as for bathing and washing.

In early June this year, 90 students of Drametse Central School in Mongar fell ill due to poor sanitation practices and water shortage. When children in schools suffer from sanitation related diseases, we have little reasons to celebrate and more to be concerned. Against the erratic water supply at the regional referral hospital, claims of 100 percent sanitation coverage pales.

According to the latest education statistics, about 46 percent of schools were reported having water supply for less than two days a week. For sanitation needs, 36 percent of schools do not have sufficient water for cleaning toilets while about 79 percent of schools reported having enough water for hand washing only. Although all schools have at least a basic toilet, the number of girls’ toilets in lower, middle and higher secondary schools does not meet the national standard of one toilet compartment for every 25 girls.

These findings do not sit ​well with the recent achievements. When schools where a majority of the country’s population study and live for most parts of their lives do not have basic sanitation facilities, it means that we have not done well. A dzongkhag’s achievements, especially in terms of sanitation coverage​,​ must also be assessed by the level of access those in institutions have to these facilities.

However, the movement to enhance access to improved sanitation must not lose momentum. We still have 30 percent of rural households in the country that do not have access to improved sanitation. As works are implemented to improve sanitation coverage, we urge agencies and policy makers to include access to water and soap in toilets as one of the criteria in assessing sanitation coverage.

But the recent achievements are a strong reminder to agencies such as the Tourism Council of Bhutan that has been unable to develop restroom facilities for tourists. Our local governments show how it can be done.