SACOSAN V: End open defecation in South Asia by 2023

Girish Menon, WaterAid's Director of International Programmes, has been in Nepal this week for the fifth South Asian Conference on Sanitation.


25 Oct 2013 | Nepal

Here he talks about the ambitious commitments made to tackle the region's sanitation crisis, and the vital need for collaboration:

As part of a colourful opening ceremony in Kathmandu, the President of Nepal declared that Bhaktapur district, home to 300,000 people, was now 'open defecation free' (ODF) – evidence of the encouraging progress that has been made in sanitation across the region.

Far less pleasing to hear was the reminder that two-thirds of the population of South Asia are not so lucky, still having nowhere to go to the toilet. 750,000 South Asian children were estimated to have died due to poor sanitation since the last SACOSAN in 2011.

Over the week we discussed every aspect of addressing the sanitation crisis in South Asia: reaching the unreached, the urban challenges, sustainability, improving conditions in schools, using technology, marketing sanitation, and using the media to raise awareness of the issues. During these discussions, three big challenges stood out for me:

  1. Addressing inequities: We heard a presentation by Nepalese disability activist Amrita Gyawali, recounting her personal experiences of not being able to access sanitation services and the humiliation she felt. Her story was also communicated through a powerful film made with the support of WaterAid Nepal. Many delegates were overwhelmed, not having realised the extent of the barriers faced on a daily basis by people with disabilities.
  2.  Urban sanitation: Though urban sanitation rates in the region have improved from 40% to 46% since 1990, in actual terms there are today an estimated 70 million more people (the size of the UK population) without a toilet. Untreated human waste is a huge environmental hazard. Less than 20% of faecal sludge is estimated to be treated in the region – in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, this falls to just 2%!
  3. Sanitation as a right: There was a strong sense that lack of sanitation is a human rights issue – an issue of gross inequity and social injustice. The most marginalised and excluded people – the poorest, those with disabilities, chronically ill people, those in hard to reach areas, and women and girls – must be empowered to demand their right to sanitation.

Over the course of the week, it became clearer than ever to me that collaboration – between governments, NGOs, community groups and the media – is vital to address these challenges. It was inspiring to see that sanitation is a high priority for South Asian governments. But now we must work alongside these governments to identity the right solutions and collectively achieve them.

Three days of intensive discussions ended with the adoption of the Kathmandu Declaration by the heads of the official delegations of eight countries. There is now a clear commitment to end open defecation in South Asia by 2023. This is also seen as a step towards improved and sustained environmental sanitation, with a clear focus on the poorest, most marginalised and excluded people.

Seeing through these commitments will require continued political will, resources and careful monitoring. But together, and only together, we can see an end to open defecation in South Asia.

Read the full Kathmandu Declaration document here > 

What is SACOSAN?

SACOSANs are intended to develop a regional agenda on sanitation, enabling learning from past experiences and setting actions for the future. The objectives of such conferences are to accelerate the progress in sanitation and hygiene promotion in South Asia and to enhance quality of people's life. The SACOSAN process is instrumental to generate political will towards better sanitation in the region.

The participating South Asian countries are: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The first conference was held in Bangladesh in 2003, the second in Pakistan in 2006, the third in India in 2008 and the fourth in Sri Lanka in 2011.

From the first SACOSAN in 2003, when WaterAid Bangladesh served as the secretariat, WaterAid teams have been closely involved with the SACOSAN process. Every host nation has been appreciative of the support provided, particularly through our input on the focus as well as the design of the programmes.

In keeping with this tradition, Ashutosh Tiwari, Country Representative, WaterAid Nepal, and Rabin Lal Shrestha, South Asia Regional Advocacy Manager, have both been members of the SACOSAN Five Working Group set up by the government of Nepal to organise the forthcoming conference.