Nepal is going through testing times. Since the monarchy ended in 2008, the four main political parties have struggled to form coalition governments and they have now appointed civil servants to run the country pending elections later this year. Meanwhile they have worked on a draft constitution which mentions water, sanitation and hygiene (known as ‘WASH’) along with pressing issues like housing and the rights of women and minorities. It was in this context that our visit took place.
WASH is arguably the most urgent of these demands because, while clean water targets are slowly being met, one billion people still lack toilets across South Asia, with 700 million using open fields and public spaces. Pipes and drains can leak and water gets polluted. As a result, diarrhoea is the second biggest cause of death and in Nepal two cholera outbreaks claimed hundreds of lives in 2009 and 2011.
The campaign which Lord McColl and I joined aims to bring attention to these issues and it is sorely needed. It was encouraging seeing so many parliamentarians from the region together in one place, and talking about this one very important issue.
In Nepal, which I have visited several times, I was reminded what life without proper hygiene was like and the terrible effect it has on health, safety, dignity and education. I also saw how improved sanitation really does transform lives and why it is so important that we in the UK take immediate action to help those denied this basic human right.
Whilst Kathmandu is quite used to strikes and demonstrations, a street march of 1,000 Nepalis, mainly women calling for clean water and sanitation for all by 2030 was one of the more unusual scenes it will have seen this year. Maybe even more unusual for having a member of the House of Lords in attendance as well! Unusual or not, I hope the dignity march helped to bring home the message.
With one billion still lacking sanitation throughout Asia, the South Asian MPs will take home a strong message from the World Health Organisation that a healthier population can quadruple the productive power of the local economy. And we need to remind our own prime minister, when he sets the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals in stone this summer, of the important target of WASH for all by 2030.
In the UK we take loos for granted, but with more than 300,000 children in South Asia dying every year from diarrhoea and two out of three people in the region lacking access to adequate sanitation, this is an issue we cannot ignore. You can write to your MP here.