The 7th South Asian Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN-7) held in Islamabad, Pakistan from April 10 to 13, highlighted the moral duty of all South Asian governments to sustain the momentum of sanitation revolution.

While some countries have come closer to achieving 100 percent access to basic sanitation, others have been making commendable progress.

The SACOSAN member states called for a comprehensive strategy to address sanitation-related issues in South Asia.

Addressing more than 500 delegates, keynote speaker, Dr Parvez Hassan, Pakistan’s top environmentalist, outlined justice-based global framework for human dignity that hinges on access to basic requirements such as clean water, safe sanitation, adequate shelter, clean air, healthcare and food security.

He brought to light some of the chilling realties of Asia. For example, in Central, South, East and Southeast Asia, about 1.7 billion people did not have access to safe sanitation. In South Asia, more than 933 million people lacked basic sanitation services as of 2015, about 558 million people practiced open defecation, and 206 million lacked basic drinking water services.

The UNICEF/WHO Joint Monitoring Programme defines safe sanitation as use of improved facilities that are not shared with other households and where excreta are safely disposed in situ or transported and treated off-site.

Presenting the country status, the head of Bhutanese delegation, Thimphu Thrompon Kinlay Dorjee, said Bhutan had made commendable strides in sanitation in both rural and urban areas. For example, the national rate for access to improved sanitation stands at 85.3 percent although the figure comes down to 63 percent if considered on the current Sustainable Development Goals basic service levels. Overall, the national open defecation (OD) rate stands at 4.1 percent.

He informed the representatives that in the rural context, the launch of the Rural Sanitation and Hygiene Programme (RSAHP) in 2008 has led to rapid gains. The Public Health and Engineering Department (PHED) under Ministry of Health is driving the programme with technical support from UNICEF, SNV, and the Swiss Red Cross.

The chief engineer of PHED, Rinchen Wangdi, said a number of gewogs in the initial pilot districts had already achieved 100 percent coverage and an increasing number of gewogs were on track to achieve 100 percent access in the near future. He said that RSAHP was a subsidy-free and demand-driven community-led approach to total sanitation in rural communities.

He, however, expressed his concern that adequate resources were critical to achieve universal access to sanitation in the country.

UNICEF’s regional director, Jean Gough, said the region needed more and robust investment not only in sanitation and hygiene practices, but also in hand washing.

“Hand washing is the most cost-effective vaccine on earth,” he said. “The simple act of washing hands, especially after having visited the toilet and before eating, can reduce diarrhea by almost 40 percent.”

In the meanwhile, the conference, in its Islamabad Declaration, recommended strengthening of national and regional platforms on sanitation, recognising every individual’s right to sanitation and water, and working towards a South Asia where all people have access to safe sanitation and where open defecation is completely eliminated.

Bhutan was represented by a 16-member delegation from the government, civil society, international development agencies, monastic bodies, and the private sector. 

Staff Reporter