Experts have urged the government to reduce inequalities in allocation for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in rural and urban areas in the National Budget 2021-2022 and to increase allocation to address the overwhelming challenges posed by Covid-19.
"Current Covid-19 infections in border districts have shown us the importance of equal distribution of allocation in WASH sector, especially in the hygiene sector," said Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, chairman of the Power and Participatory Research Centre (PPRC), at a pre-budget virtual press conference on Sunday.
WaterAid, Unicef, PPRC, Freshwater Action Network South Asia – Bangladesh (FANSA-BD), FSM Network, Sanitation and Water for All, WASH Alliance and MHM Network jointly organised the programme.
Hossain Zillur Rahman said, "Covid-19 has increased disparities and gaps in many forms. Addressing inequalities within the WASH sector is a must to continue the commendable progress the government has demonstrated in achieving Sustainable Development Goals."
In the 2016-2017 budget, 20% of WASH budget was allocated for rural areas. In 2020-2021, it came down to 17%.
The allocation of funds for the WASH sector in the national budget has gradually increased from Tk2,563 crore in 2007-2008 to Tk12,127 crore to 2020-2021. Despite a good increasing trend in the fiscal year 2020-21, less than 5% was allocated to hygiene in the WASH allocation under ADP allocation.
"Hygiene remains a neglected cross cutting sub-sector as allocation in hygiene remains low. Not giving proper attention to it may prolong the pandemic. There is a high need for WASH budget allocations in rural, char, hilly and coastal areas, but the cities and metropolitan received a relatively higher share of the allocations in recent years," added Dr Rahman.
Although the urban areas received more budget allocation, availability of clean water, soap and hygiene facilities are still lacking in major cities, including markets, bus terminals, public places, and institutions.
Only 40% of the population has access to basic hygiene facilities – hand washing facilities with soap and water on premises. A need for a nation-wide campaign for "Hand Hygiene for All" and allocation for it has been highlighted in the press conference.
Functional facilities are needed at hospitals and clinics in both urban and rural setting with running water and soap to avert widespread virus transmission. At present most of the facilities pose a risk of dengue, said the speakers urging engagement of NGOs and budget allocation to maintain these facilities properly.
Hasin Jahan, country director of WaterAid Bangladesh said, "We do not know whether the TK10,000 'thok boraddo' or block allocation for the health ministry is spent or not."
She said instead of providing a block allocation for the ministry, the government should provide guidelines on spending the money.
Withdraw VAT and tax on sanitary pad
Adolescent girls and women have returned to using old clothes instead of using sanitary pad due to the decrease in earnings during the Covid-19 crisis.
Hasin Jahan said sanitary pads can be provided as aid for marginalised women.
She also said, "If the government withdraws VAT on sanitary pad it will be affordable for many families. India has already withdrawn all VAT and taxes on pad."
Experts recommended a holistic rethinking of WASH priorities with particular focus on elevating hygiene to fight Covid-19 pandemic as well as to meet the SDGs.
They also emphasised the importance of resource mobilisation and an action plan on creating hand washing stations in public and market spaces, public and private offices, and regular demonstration to ensure their functionality.
They also recommended mainstreaming hygiene by developing a hygiene issues and practices agenda encompassing both personal spaces and social spaces and updating the National hygiene promotion strategy in light of Covid-19 and SDGs.
They also called for more projects with required budgetary provision for inclusion and continuation of environment-friendly solar water desalination treatment plants in the coastal strip of the country.