Joining forces to prioritise sanitation

WaterAid countries working in South Asia have joined a wide ranging coalition of organisations to launch an important new campaign to urge governments in South Asia to priortise sanitation. They were joined by two members of the UK’s House of Lords, the Earl of Sandwich and Lord McColl, who went out to Nepal to find out more about the campaign and to join in solidarity with parliamentarians from six countries across the region.

The parliamentary delegation visited the community of Thecho in Lalitpur District, Kathmandu, where WaterAid partner Lumanti has been working with the community since 2005 to construct latrines. They saw for themselves how communities are working to address sanitation challenges through the establishment of a women’s savings and credit cooperative, which provides loans to households for the construction of the latrines. John Montague, Earl of Sandwich, described how sanitation can be the first step to wider development for the community, “We learned that women can now make loans for other purposes beyond toilets such as animals for agriculture”.

The parliamentary delegation then met to agree a joint parliamentary statement, setting out actions required by South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) governments to achieve universal access to sanitation. This statement calls for South Asian governments to:

  • increase investment in the sector;
  • better target existing resources towards poor and marginalised groups;
  • engage in discussions on the global development framework to be adopted in place of the Millennium Development Goals after 2015, to ensure that sanitation is prioritised. 
Immediately after agreeing this statement, the parliamentarians joined over 1000 people, including school children, community organisations and NGOs from across the region to march through the streets of Kathmandu. Holding placards with slogans such as: “Put rupees in toilets and save hundreds”, they voiced their concern over the sanitation crisis. At the end of the march the parliamentary statement, along with the citizens’ charter agreed by South Asian civil society, was presented to the SAARC secretariat.

In their words

It was a privilege to support the campaign which will be vital to place pressure on governments to keep their promises. I hope that the campaign will bring about real achievements like separate budget lines for sanitation and increase financing to the sector, as well as determining recommendations on post-2015 development targets for sanitation.

Lord McColl talking at conferenceDuring our visit, we saw first-hand the problems that the campaign seeked to address. We met with people living without adequate sanitation, and saw how a simple latrine can really transform lives, impacting on health, safety, dignity and education.

In one small village called Thecho on the outskirts of Kathmandu, we met women who were part of a Women's co-operative that was set up to oversee the construction and maintenance of eco-friendly household latrines, vastly improving the quality of life in the community.

The unsanitary environment led to serious health concerns. Diarrhoea caused by poor sanitation and dirty water is the second leading disease cause of under-five deaths in South Asia, and is also linked to pneumonia and under-nutrition.

More than this, it was evident that sanitation had a clear and significant impact on dignity, education, and livelihoods. Before they had latrines, they had no choice but to defecate in the open. The women said this put them at risk of harassment and even attack.
I met with the UK Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening MP on my return and told her about my experiences and why it was vital that our country works with parliamentarians and governments worldwide to end this crisis. Being back in the Houses of Parliament made me very aware of our own history for it was only when Parliament had to be closed because of the “Big Stink” that sewer building began.

I’d encourage supporters of WaterAid in the UK to play their role too by writing to MPs to let them know how important solving the water and sanitation crisis is. You can write to your MP here.

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.

Earl of SandwichWASH 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.