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Reporting from SACOSAN VI

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The eight large and small countries involved in these biennial South Asia Sanitation Conferences (SACOSAN) differ in important ways. The Maldives is an island nation. Bhutan and Nepal are mountainous areas. Bangladesh’s, Afghanistan’s, and Pakistan’s populations are majority Muslim. India, of course, is the largest and most diverse. And Sri Lanka may be the most advanced in terms of literacy and other development indicators.  Sri Lanka has recently experienced civil war and a tsunami, which also hit the Maldives. Nepal had a terrible earthquake last spring. Afghanistan is plagued by military conflict. Yet they share a common history and all partake of the same kaleidoscopic blend of regional cultures. As one participant said in yesterday’s side-session, these neighboring countries can learn from each other.

Pakistan’s participation actually was limited to a brief video greeting from the President because of a flare-up of diplomatic hostilities that prevented Pakistanis from getting visas to enter Bangladesh.

We were only able to join the afternoon panels today. Security was extremely tight. Absolutely no bags – not even cell phones – were allowed inside the conference venue. The President of Bangladesh was here until around 1pm. After he left, things relaxed, and the rest of us easily entered (after battling impossible traffic).

The keynote presentation was by Professor Feroze Ahmed. He presented a helpful overview, comparing all the South Asian countries’ sanitation performance and making recommendations for the all-important declaration that will come out of this conference. The best progress has been in Nepal and Pakistan. Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka met their MDG sanitation objectives. Regarding the prospect of reaching the SDG target of safe sanitation for all by 2030, he predicted that Maldives and Sri Lanka will reach it easily. Bangladesh will have to push. And India and Afghanistan will need “intensive effort” to reach this goal. In accord with the SDG principles, the 2016 SACOSAN declaration must address equity questions, including the needs/rights of girls and women and those in “vulnerable situations.” Any strategy recommendations should address the needs for: acceleration of latrine coverage, elimination of OD, upgrading latrines, reaching “hard-to-reach” populations, and improving hygiene.

The remainder of the afternoon consisted of presentation of seven country papers plus the brief video from Pakistan. Details of these papers are sure to be available online. All described their institutional set-ups, general progress statistics (coverage and OD), challenges/gaps, and opportunities. India’s present policy for the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India campaign) is for the states to be “key implementing units.”  The Maldives got very serious about sanitation after the 2004 tsunami. Small-bore sewer systems without treatment, septic systems, a few other options were made available to the population; and now “all houses have toilets,” according to the speaker. Despite the costs and other difficulties associated with recovering from its recent earthquake, Nepal remains committed to reaching its national goal of a toilet in every home by 2017, according to the speaker, the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Water Supply and Sanitation (a newly formed governmental agency). I hope to write more detailed notes on these presentations after a while.

Date: 13 January 2016