Prominent aid worker and social activist Parveen Rehman was shot and killed by four gunmen on Wednesday while driving through Karachi, Pakistan’s largest urban area and financial capital. Her death marks another tragic loss for the city, where sectarian violence has been making unfortunate headlines this month.
Rehman was the longtime director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), a Pakistani NGO founded in 1980 to implement sustainable solutions to sanitation and other development problems in Orangi, one of South Asia’s largest slums.
Located on the outskirts of Karachi, the Orangi settlement is home to some of Pakistan’s most impoverished, with many households still disposing of sewage in bucket latrines or open sewers.
Under Rehman’s leadership, OPP won a 2001 World Habitat Award for its efforts to remedy this with low cost, community-managed initiatives. To date, the Project has installed sewer lines and over 72,000 sanitary latrines throughout Orangi, as well as inspiring similar efforts in other parts of the country. It has become known as one of Pakistan’s most successful sanitation improvement organizations, filling a critical need in a country that only spends 0.37 percent of GDP on sanitation and drinking water-related initiatives.
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However, in spite of the efforts of organizations like OPP and increased awareness of the problems associated with a lack of sanitation, access to clean water and functioning hygiene systems remains an ongoing problem for Pakistan, particularly in rural areas.
According to a 2012 UNICEF and World Health Organization report, Pakistan has not made sufficient progress since 2000 to be on track to meet the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of “reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” It is also still one of the countries with the largest numbers of people practicing open defecation.
The health issues that arise from poor sanitation infrastructure are deeply problematic and exacerbated in countries like Pakistan, which has been hit hard by several floods over the past few years. In addition to putting people at risk for water-borne diseases like cholera, floodwaters often contaminate groundwater, limiting clean water options even further.
UNICEF states that almost 1.3 million young children die annually from diarrheal diseases, many of which are caused by contaminated water. Half of these deaths take place in just five countries, one of which is Pakistan.
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The economic losses of insufficient sanitation are grave as well, according to a recent Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) report. WSP estimates that considering the economic costs of subpar sanitary conditions – including costs associated with death or disease and other welfare losses – Pakistan lost around $5.7 billion in 2006. This is equivalent to 3.9 percent of the country’s overall GDP.
The next meeting to tackle these many of these issues in Pakistan and throughout the region will be the fifth South Asian Conference on Sanitation, scheduled for November 2013 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Pakistan hosted the conference in Islamabad in 2006.