1. Home
  2. Asia
  3. Pakistan

Mindset change key to changing rural toilet habits

A woman fetches water from a hand pump in Pakistan's southern Sindh province. Zofeen Ebrahim/IRIN
Until just a year ago Jan Bibi and her five daughters aged 6-18 began their day by getting up before sunrise, walking a couple of hundred metres from their home to a filthy enclosed communal space, digging a small hole and relieving themselves. The alternative was to find some thick bushes and tell someone to watch out for prying eyes.

In this primitive manner the women of Mir Ghulam Shah village in Sanghar District, Sindh Province, 300km east of Karachi, answered nature's call.

Last year, however, the Sindh Agricultural and Forestry Workers' Coordinating Organisation (SAFWCO) began building 289 low-cost toilets in eight villages - one of them hers. Her unschooled husband, Fazal Din, a farmer, decided to pay.

He still defecates in the field, believing that the latrine in his house is for the womenfolk.

Of paramount concern for him was that his daughters were harassed by males watching them while they relieved themselves.

Their latrine, in the far corner of their courtyard with a supply of water from the hand-pump (also installed recently), means that they no longer have to spend hours fetching water from the nearby canal. It has also made life easier during their monthly periods.

"Now all my worries are over," 45-year-old Bibi said. "Even if it's raining I don't have to fear stepping into a ditch of shit."

International Year of Sanitation 2008

Official website

In September 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals that challenged the global community to reduce poverty and increase the health and well-being of all peoples. In September 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg reaffirmed these goals and added access to basic sanitation as a centerpiece of the poverty eradication commitments. The target to halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2105 was defined in the Johannesburg Plan of Action (JPOI).

The twelfth session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CDS-12), held in New York in April 2004, reviewed the state of implementation of the goals and targets in the thematic areas of water, sanitation and human settlements. CSD-12 identified constraints to, and continuing challenges for, the implementation of these goals, including the JPOI target on access to basic sanitation. On the basis of that review, CSD-13 in April 2005 recommended policy actions to be implemented by member States in addressing these challenges. The international community will review progress towards the implementation of these recommendations during CSD-16 in May 2008.

Despite significant efforts by governments, progress on sanitation targets has been slow and uneven. Recognising the impact of sanitation on public health, poverty reduction, economic and social development, and the environment, the General Assembly decided to declare 2008 the International Year of Sanitation (GA resolution 61/192 of 20 December 2006). The General Assembly encouraged member States as well as the United Nations system, to take advantage of the International Year to increase awareness of the importance of sanitation to promote action at all levels, taking into account the recommendations of CSD-13.

Low awareness

Lack of basic hygiene awareness is partly to blame for the fact that some 4,000 young children across South Asia die each day of a preventable disease like diarrhoea.

This situation could be improved (and hefty medical bills avoided) simply by following the golden rule of sanitation - hand-washing with soap after defecation and before eating.

To boost such awareness, the UN has declared 2008 the International Year of Sanitation, and the relevant Millennium Development Goal (MDG) aims to reduce by half the proportion of people without basic sanitation by 2015.

The numbers

Although access to improved sanitation in South Asia has more than doubled from 17 percent in the 1990s to 37 percent in 2004, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization, coverage remains low, with two out of three people still lacking basic sanitation.

This translates into 2.6 billion people (40 percent of the world's population) around the world without access to basic sanitation facilities, of which 1.9 billion are in Asia (900 million in South Asia).

In Pakistan an estimated 54 percent of the population has access to sanitary latrines (86 percent urban and 30 percent rural), according to government statistics.

However, this data masks the problem in rural areas where most of the country's over 150 million inhabitants live.

According to the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, if in 2005, about 38.5 million people lacked access to a safe drinking water source and about 50.7 million lacked access to improved sanitation in Pakistan, on current trends, by 2015, 52.8 million people would be without safe drinking water and 43.2 million would have no access to adequate sanitation

And while Britain s Department for International Development (DFID) says Pakistan is largely on track in achieving its MDG to half the population without access to improved water and sanitation by 2015, the fact remains more will be needed.

A survey of sanitation facilities in the country by Pakistan's Ministry for Environment revealed that only 0.08 percent of the country's GDP was spent on sanitation during the fiscal year 2002-2003, 0.09 percent of GDP during 2003-2004, and 0.1 percent during 2004-2005. These allocations were insufficient to meet development targets in the water and sanitation sector, the report said.

With its National Sanitation Policy 2006, Pakistan aspires to create "an open defecation-free environment", but it is going to be an onerous task if almost 70 percent of people in rural areas are currently without latrines.

Mindset change

The reasons why so many people do not have latrines cannot always be explained by financial constraints. As one woman put it aptly, "it is the poverty of our minds" that keeps them from adopting safe excreta disposal methods.

Photo: Zofeen Ebrahim/IRIN
Access to clean water and sanitation are key challenges for Pakistan today

Working with rural communities for two decades, Suleman Abro, director of SAFWCO, knows all too well that behaviour change does not happen overnight. Neither can it be imposed.

"You have to bring people to the point when they begin to think it's an important issue, otherwise it's an exercise in futility," he said.

Mindful of that, the Rural Support Programme Network, one of Pakistan's leading non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - with access to rural communities in 93 districts - did just that when it initiated its Community-Led Total Sanitation initiative to end open defecation.

In this no-subsidy approach, volunteers from the community involve people in a sanitation drive and prod them into realising how harmful and disgusting their toilet habits are. This results in a desire to invest in a latrine and to stop littering.

A simple strategy that started in Bangladesh, and which caught on in India, is now gaining ground in Pakistan too, as well as in Indonesia, Cambodia and Nepal.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article

Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.

Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.

We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.

Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian. 

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.