World Water Day is commemorated every year on March 22 to highlight issues related to water and advocate sustainable management of water resources. “Leaving no one behind” is the theme of this year, which calls for efforts to address disparities and inequities in access and affordability of safe drinking water for all.
There are over 17 million people in Pakistan who get drinking water from unsafe sources. For Unicef, this is an opportunity to underscore that a large number of Pakistani children are left behind in their lives only because their parents do not have access to safe drinking water.
In the rural areas of Pakistan, parents are always willing to travel an extra mile for fetching safe water for their children. They invest in schooling their children, even by curtailing their basic needs. They are good duty bearers in ensuring that their children actualise all the possible rights and achieve maximum potentials for living a bright and prosperous life. Pakistani parents often express ‘we can do our best and then leave it to destiny of our children’. They rightly believe that the destiny of their children is dependent on many other duty bearers.
I think disparities that are growing wider with time are holding our children behind. If all duty bearers are as optimistic as parents, commonly existing inequalities like income, geographical location and ethnicities can be taken care of by respecting child rights and by investing in human capital – a vision so often expressed by Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr Imran Khan.
In the life cycle of a child, which starts from conception, the wellbeing of a mother before, during and after pregnancy is extremely important. And the first 1000 days of a child’s life are crucial. Insanitary conditions linked with repeated episodes of diarrhoea, can impact a child’s cognitive skills for his/her entire life. Safe drinking water, safe sanitation, hygiene and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months are some inexpensive ways of avoiding stunting and saving almost half of Pakistan’s children from being ‘left behind’.
Every year, 53,300 under-five children die in Pakistan due to diarrhoea as a result of poor water and sanitation. Not so unlucky but ‘left behind’ are stunted children, who with impaired cognitive skills, can’t be educated or end up dropping out of school, adding to the burden of the nearly 23 million out-of-school children. These children never catch-up with their peers. Investing in human capital, or more precisely in cognitive capital, is the need of Pakistan’s bulging youth dividend. Giving them safe drinking water along with a sanitary environment is an obligation of duty bearers and recognised by the UN General Assembly as the basic rights of every child.
Some girls drop out of school due to inadequate or inappropriate sanitation and hygiene facilities at the age of puberty. Latrines and washing facilities without water do not meet the special needs of girl students for appropriate menstrual hygiene. These ‘left behind’ girls are victims of inequities related to gender, where talking about menstrual management remains a tabooed reality.
Some disparities are structural and inherited by children by virtue of their family’s location. A child born in an urban slum or rural village will have more chances of being left behind than others. A child born in a rural community will inherit 18 percent access to piped water service as compared to his urban age fellow with 55 percent access.
Similarly, a child born in the poorest family will have 79 percent chance of inheriting at least basic services of water as compared to a child born in a rich family with privilege of 98 percent access. Conversely, a child born in a rural poor household is likely to have 82 percent chances of having an unsanitary environment around him as compared to less than one percent for a child born in rich urban neighbourhood.
Some factors related to water, which contribute to holding a child back, are institutional. It is a harsh reality that there is no independent regulator of drinking water quality and no institutional mechanism to independently regulate drinking water quality at the national or provincial levels.
Pakistan is facing an acute water shortage and signs of water stress. Water scarcity, resource depletion, and contamination are some of the causes. Rapid population growth and urbanisation have put an additional strain on an already overburdened water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure. This often leads to serious public health concerns, especially for Pakistani children.
Unicef lauds the government of Pakistan’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goal that aims to ensure adequate and equitable access to affordable, safe and clean water for everyone, everywhere so that no child is left behind. The Prime Minister’s Clean Green Pakistan is a very good initiative. Thoughtful consideration should also be given to the impact of water quality regulation on the country’s social development.
On its part, Unicef will continue to support the government in its efforts to ensure safe and clean drinking water for all, and to address the potential impact of unregulated disposal and poor management of wastewater.
The writer is the Unicef representative in Pakistan.