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Nature’s unanswered call

Every year, several international days are observed to renew pledges and create awareness about certain issues. The quarters that matter and can take the required actions are also persuaded to do the needful. International rankings are shared on these occasions to gauge the progress made by different countries in this context and evaluate how high they put these priorities on their respective national agendas.
World Toilet Day, which falls on November 19 every year, also highlights an important issue that has been ignored in urban and rural development plans, especially in the developing world. On this day, special efforts are made to divert the world’s attention towards the fact that even in this modern age, billions of people do not have access to toilets. They defecate in the open and are least bothered about washing their hands after relieving themselves.
Even worse is the lack of sanitation facilities, due to which human waste is dumped in the open. Owing to this, water-borne diseases spread at an alarming rate and result in numerous deaths all over the world. What perturbs many is that these problems can be avoided by increasing access to toilets and adopting safe sanitation practices.
The situation in Pakistan is not too different. According to a report published by WaterAid, a non-profit working globally on water and sanitation issues, Pakistan is among the 10 countries where people living in cities have the least access to toilets. The rural areas are in an even worse condition because of the sheer lack of sanitation facilities and drainage channels.
Unfortunately, the dwellers of the rural areas don’t even realise that it is their basic right to have access to these facilities. So, they mostly go out into the fields for this purpose. Women suffer the most because they have to make these visits to the fields just once a day – mostly while it is dark – and hold it in throughout the day. Their vulnerability to sexual assault increases due to this and many incidents of women being attacked in the fields have been reported.
It doesn’t end here. Open defecation is a major cause of serious health complications as well. Quite often, the unsafe disposal of human excreta pollutes the drinking water supplies areas and increases the disease burden of ailments like diarrhoea and hepatitis. There are around 53,000 deaths every year due to diarrhoea in Pakistan, out of which 27,000 occur in Punjab alone, which is the most developed province. Public health experts directly link this phenomenon with the fact that around 43 million individuals in the country do not use a toilet.
Having said that, we need to explore what efforts are being made to improve the situation and fulfil the commitments made at national and global forums. It was in 2013 that the UN General Assembly designated November 19 as World Toilet Day. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were launched in 2015, also have a target under the goal six to ensure everyone has access to a toilet by 2030.
If we look at the situation in our country, we find that progress on this target is far from satisfactory. Despite realising the hazards that are involved, very little has been done to discourage open defecation and give more people access to toilets and safe sanitation facilities. The neglect on the part of the planners has had several negative impacts. For example, the absence of toilets in girls schools in rural areas is a major reason why female students drop out or do not enrol themselves at these institutions in the first place. A large number of women have complained about being harassed on their way to the fields and, on some occasions, they are bitten by dogs kept by the landlords to guard their agricultural lands. In addition, the incidence of intestinal and colon diseases is high among women who hold back the natural urge to relieve themselves till they find it safe to enter a field.
The situation in cities isn’t good either. Building bylaws, which make it mandatory for commercial centres to have toilets on every floor, are violated with impunity. The reason is simple: why waste space for this purpose, when such spaces can fetch millions of rupees if they are sold as offices or shops? There are not enough public toilets in cities and those that do exist are poorly maintained. The toilets attached to mosques are locked most of the time and are only accessible to people during prayer timings. Earlier, these would be open round-the-clock but they are now closed on the pretext of security risks.
All this boil downs to a realisation that toilets and sanitation facilities are as important as any other basic need of the citizens. Therefore, a nationwide plan should be launched to provide these facilities on an emergency basis. This is not impossible, especially when a local government system is in place. If they are granted their due share in the state’s resources, the district governments can make sanitation and toilet facilities the cornerstone of their service delivery policies. Meanwhile, the other tiers of the government and the private sector are also welcome to contribute to this cause.

The writer is a staffer at The News.
Email: shahzada.irfan@gmail.com

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed, "Nature’s unanswered call," The News. 2017-11-22.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , World toilet day , Sanitation issues , Rural areas , sexual assault , Development , Security , Diseases , Pakistan , SDGs