Annually, countries around the world celebrate the World Water Day on 22nd March to recognize the importance of water in sustaining human lives. The Water Day also provides an opportunity to reflect on the myriad implications of climate change and the growing human population on the limited water resources, and empathise with the millions of people globally who are unable to procure clean drinking water in their daily lives. Arguably, lack of access to clean water can be a major hurdle in human developmental prospects. According to the World Economic Forum’s report on Global Risks in 2015, the impact of water crises poses the greatest risks to our global economy and human habitats, especially for middle and low income countries like Pakistan.
While Pakistan is a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which mandates all countries to ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ (SDG 6), Pakistan still ranks among the top 10 countries with the largest number of people living without access to safe water. In the recent years, due to high population growth and increasing urbanization, the availability of clean water is becoming more difficult, resulting in high incidence of waterborne diseases and threatening long-term growth of the country.
Challenges of accessing safe drinking water are especially pertinent for communities wrapped around the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalaya ranges in northern Pakistan. Due to the region’s rigid topography and harsh climatic conditions, there is inadequate public Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) infrastructure and inhabitants are dependent to procure water from open channels which are usually contaminated and lead to waterborne diseases. Women are most affected by these challenges because they have to walk long distances – taking up to three hours – negotiating rocky slopes and snow-laden paths to collect water for their families. This was aptly explained by Shireen, a 14-year old girl from a village in Baltistan:
“I dread winters because I have to make several trips to the river to bring water on my back and also because my younger siblings often fall sick and contract skin diseases from drinking the dirty water. Last winter, I injured my leg at the river bank while collecting water which cost my father over PKR 4,000 at the Skardu hospital”.
Recognizing these challenges, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH), an apex institution under the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), initiated the Water and Sanitation Extension Programme (WASEP) in 1997 with the aim of providing quality WASH services in high mountainous settlements in northern Pakistan. Over two decades, AKAH’s WASEP has provided an exemplary model for ensuring safe drinking water – which meets the World Health Organization standards – in mountainous communities. To date, over 650 rural and urban settlements – with a population of over half a million people -in the mountainous communities in northern Pakistan have benefited from WASEP. This not only includes the urban towns like Gilgit and Chitral, but also includes far-flung, inaccessible rural settlements, for instance, the village of Brohgil on the border of Pakistan, which is severely affected by harsh weather and is inaccessible via roads for more than four months in a year. Implementation of programmes like WASEP have significantly benefited life in such remote areas. One such beneficiary is a housewife who describes the impact of getting safe drinking water at her doorstep:
“We have been saved from the curse of diarrheal diseases, and I no longer have to spend time and energy hauling water uphill from the well. With clean water coming to our houses, I can use the additional time to help my children with their homework or stitch nice clothes for them”.
Central to WASEP’s success is its bottom-up, participatory approach by encouraging the local communities, particularly the women, to participate in the planning and implementation phases of the project. In each village where WASEP provides a water scheme, a community-led village organization is also formed, which not only makes financial contribution towards the water project, but also contributes in gathering local construction materials and unskilled labour for the project. The overall result of such aggressive community engagement is the increased ownership of communities towards the water scheme in their village.
Based on its extensive infield experience and in recognition of the international best practices, AKAH also understands that the mere installation of water and sanitation infrastructure may be insufficient in addressing issues of water and sanitation due to deep-rooted behavioural patterns in a social setting. Hence, a crucial component of WASEP is its behavioural change communication strategy through which the community is sensitized to adopt improved health and hygiene practices in their daily lives. The Community Health Improvement Program (CHIP) sensitizes communities, particularly women, on issues of maintaining basic health and hygiene in their daily lives. Over two decades, through CHIP, WASEP has trained over 150,000 people, more than 60% of whom are women.
Recognizing the high instances of waterborne diseases, especially among young children, WASEP has a dedicated School Health Improvement Program (SHIP) which focuses on sensitizing young children in primary schools on basic health and hygiene matters including: disease transmission routes, causes of, and prevention against diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases, measures to prevent against water and hygiene related diseases, handwashing practices, personal hygiene etc. Since 1997, WASEP has trained over 100,000 school-going children, nearly 50% of whom are young girls, to practice and promote healthy habits in their homes.
AKAH’s WASEP approach was recognized by the Alcan Prize for Sustainability in 2005 and the Dubai International Award for Best Practices in 2008. WASEP has also been cited as a Millennium Development Goals (MDG) good practice by the United Nations Development Group to address specific constraints and challenges in achieving the MDGs. According to the WHO Bulletin of 2003, the entire “package” of services provided by WASEP (safe drinking water, sanitation, health and hygiene education) has been critical in bringing over 25% reduction in the incidence of diarrhoea in its project villages. Pakistan can also take pride in the fact that the WASEP model has also been replicated in some of mountainous regions of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
However, despite its achievements in the past twenty years, several communities across Pakistan still consume unsafe drinking water. Today, as the world celebrates the World Water Day, let’s take this as an opportunity for the public and private sectors, and the civil society to synergize our resources and prioritize access to water for all as a key developmental objective for bringing prosperity in Pakistan.