Asian countries must get behind measures proposed in the Sustainable Development Goals and work together in order to achieve success in the availability and management of water and sanitation.
Despite rapid economic growth in Asia, serious health, nutrition and development gaps persist, including inadequate services and inequitable access in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector. South, East and South East Asia still contribute over 40 per cent of the global deaths of children aged under five. Poor WASH services, in particular, contributes to the unacceptably high levels of child morbidity, mortality and under-nutrition in the region.
There has been some progress. For example, a substantial number of people have gained access to an improved water source or latrine, with over 50 per cent of global progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) happening in Eastern and Southern Asia. But we need to accelerate this progress, especially in terms of equitable access.
Poverty and vulnerability remain important factors influencing access to WASH services. In the Philippines, for example, only 8 per cent of the poorest households have piped water compared to 93 per cent of the richest households, while in Mongolia improved sanitation coverage is only 11 per cent in the poorest homes but 96 per cent in the richest.
While there are ways to strengthen the WASH evidence base the WASH sector already has ample justification for increased focus and investment to increase health and nutrition impact. The main issue is that the sector needs increased prioritisation and quality implementation of interventions to address the current gaps.
New potential opportunities for driving the WASH sector forward in Asia are emerging at three different levels: global, regional and national.
At the global level the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) present opportunities for an increased focus. The proposed SDG Goal 6 is to ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ with the goal focusing on the achievement, by 2030, of universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water and adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all.
A key inclusion is the call to end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations. There is also a call to improve water quality by reducing contamination as well as increasing water-use efficiency for sustainability. In addition, the goal aims to expand international cooperation and capacity-building support on WASH programs to developing countries, while strengthening the participation of local communities for improving water and sanitation management.
One of the most important aspects within the SDGs is a focus on high quality data and evidence of progress. This presents a great opportunity to look seriously at the quality and equity components, which at present are not well reflected in national household surveys in many Asian countries.
At regional level a promising trend has been growing efforts for regional-level cooperation on WASH. Examples include the South Asian Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN), organised by South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the East Asia Sanitation Ministerial Conference (EASAN). Such shared platforms increase peer pressure for progress and these regional cooperation initiatives help to further push for political commitment and common approaches around implementation and monitoring as well as framing WASH as key to the overall development agenda of a country.
But will the SDGs and regional support be enough on their own? Ultimately, countries need to get behind them to achieve the goals. The practical lessons learnt from Thailand on how the sanitation MDG was met are important to note. That country was able to meet the goals through strong political commitment and explicit national policy on sanitation development, government leadership at all levels, adequate human resources, appropriate technology, efficient and effective financial resources utilization, robust monitoring and supervision by Government and finally clear responsibility assigned to a single government agency for achieving universal sanitation
An added complication is that within countries struggling with WASH-related issues, responsibilities for service delivery have been increasingly decentralised. Often the local bodies tasked are unable to adequately cope with the additional responsibilities, due to the paucity of human resources and a lack of awareness and capacity for managing WASH or how it links to health and nutrition. This aspect highlights that policies are needed for pro-actively supporting these local service providers, or managers, and to find better integration among them. These policies must also hold the service providers to account within a WASH governance framework.
Increased integration within and across sectors is not possible without better data to see where the real issues are and what mid-course corrections are required. The broader policy push must be allied to strong knowledge sharing and networking linked to capacity development for knowledge management. This would be especially valuable to drive independent performance benchmarking of WASH services and to capture the associated health and nutritional impact.
The key components required to accelerate change include strengthened data availability and use, institutional and policy reform for greater cross-sectoral integration and clear accountabilities at national and local level if countries are to achieve universal access with equity, sustainability and quality. The individual political and economic choices of countries in relation to the SDGs and beyond will determine the rate of this change.
This article is based on a paper in Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies: Water, sanitation and hygiene: moving the policy agenda forward in the post-2015 Asia.