Two years ago, I visited a village in Rudaki, a hilly district located to the south of Dushanbe, Tajikistan. It lies about forty kilometres from the capital, but it feels like a thousand kilometres away. On our drive up a hill, we saw women carrying buckets of water from a nearby spring. Moving further up, we saw children bathing and animals drinking from the same river. Once in the village, it was clear that life is largely shaped by water scarcity—the backyards were filled with pots and buckets, fuel and stoves for boiling water, and pit latrines that were no longer used because of lack of water. Although we could spot remnants of a once-functional water supply network, people living there had not had access to piped water for at least two decades. Without it, they were only able to practice the most basic forms of sanitation and hygiene.
The conditions we witnessed in Rudaki were harsh, but not rare. Located on the western tip of the Himalayas, Tajikistan is a country blessed with large fresh water resources in its lakes, rivers, and glaciers. Yet, access to safe drinking water and sanitation connected to a functioning sewer system is lacking, particularly for rural residents and the poor. Much of the existing infrastructure was built during the Soviet era and has not been upgraded for decades. Tajikistan is one of the few countries outside Africa that did not meet the Millennium Development Goal on drinking water and basic sanitation. Because poor water and sanitation conditions, together with poor nutrition and care, are key determinants of childhood stunting, Tajikistan’s childhood stunting rates remain high. and will not reach their full potential as adults.
In a new report, Glass Half Full: Poverty Diagnostic of Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Conditions in Tajikistan, we document the realities of Tajikistan’s WASH-deprived population. Our analysis builds on one of the largest data collection efforts of its kind – including national surveys of households and schools, water quality tests, ethnographic work, and case studies of existing WASH projects. It also includes poverty mapping and analysis of other secondary data, including a UNICEF nutrition survey that shared a subsample with our WASH survey.
On the surface, our report brings good news: since 2000, access to improved water (i.e. water protected from contamination) increased from one-half to three-quarters of Tajikistan’s population, while access to improved sanitation (i.e. facilities that hygienically separate excreta from human contact) increased from one-tenth to one-third. However, this masks the fact that most of these improvements occurred in the lowest tiers of service, such as replacement of surface water (i.e. water collected directly from rivers, dams, lakes or canals) with public standpipes. Even if water flows from a tap, a large majority of the population continue to face challenges in the availability, continuity and quality of those services. There are also enormous gaps between the rural and urban populations—for example, less than 2 percent of rural residents have sewer connections, compared to 60 percent of urban residents (see infographic).
In the report, we show the costs of poor WASH conditions on various aspects of wellbeing. In addition to documenting monetary, time and health costs for collecting, storing and treating drinking water before consumption; we show that poor WASH conditions are associated with higher risk of diarrhoea, stunting and being underweight. For the next generation of Tajiks, these risks imply diminished learning capacity, low earnings, and increased risks of chronic illnesses. We then identify the specific geographical sites that would benefit the most from service improvements (i.e. the “biggest bang for the development buck”) and look at examples of service delivery approaches that have been tried in the past. Last but not least, our datasets offer a benchmark against which the more stringent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on WASH will be monitored by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP).
What will be the way forward for Tajikistan? The road is long, but given the level of commitment expressed by the government, donors and civil society during the launch of our report, we hope for major improvements for communities like Rudaki in the years to come. The evidence shows that Moving forward, turning this evidence into action will be an exciting opportunity for us all.