The increasing rate of open defecation across the country with its attendant health consequences worries the federal government, prompting it to declare a state of emergency in sanitation. But how far can it go?
The recent global ranking of Nigeria as number two in open defecation is obviously worrisome. That is why President Muhammadu Buhari has declared a state of emergency on the Water, Sanitation and Hygienic sector, WASH. The action many believe was long overdue.
While making the declaration, the president lamented: “Our country now ranks number two in the global rating on Open Defecation as about 25 per cent of our population are practising open defecation.”
The President described statistics on open defecation, access to piped water services and sanitation in the country as disturbing, warning that henceforth, federal government support to state governments will be based on their commitment to implement the National WASH Action Plan in their respective states and to end open defecation by 2025.
Beside filthiness, the menace of open defecation has grown to become one of the permanent environmental hazards of many cities and communities across the country. The menace has been described as a human practice of defecating outside (in an open environment) rather than into a toilet. People may choose fields, bushes, forests, ditches, streets, canals, or other open space for defecation. They do so because either they do not have a toilet readily accessible or due to primitive traditional practices.
In Nigeria, many have found this unhygienic habit convenient since there are no laws forbidding them from answering the call of nature anywhere they deem fit even in the open glare of the public. No thanks to the sheer indifference of successive governments to the practice that now poses great threats to human lives.
President Buhari admits that the menace of open defecation is not receiving the required attention judging from the high prevalence of water-borne diseases that are being reported in different parts of the country. Whether the president will muster enough courage to pursue the sanitation agenda beyond the declaration of the state of emergency remains to be seen.
As at 2016/2017, Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey showed that 25 per cent of Nigerians defecate openly. That is why the country now ranks second among countries with the highest prevalence of open defecation. Other countries in that category are Indonesia (54 million people), Pakistan (41 million people), Ethiopia (34 million), and Sudan (17 million).
The effects of open defecation, according to experts, leave much to be desired. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, open defecation is associated with water-borne diseases. When open defecation is done near waterways, it is carried into the water system. The contaminated water ends up in the main water source. When people use this water as it is for drinking and cooking, it results in water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and trachoma.
Experts say apart from water-borne diseases when human wastes collect into heaps, it attracts flies and other insects. These flies then travel around the surrounding areas, carrying defecate matters and disease-causing microbes when they then land on food and drinks that people ingest unknowingly. In such cases, the flies act as direct transmitters of diseases such as cholera.
According to public health experts, a sad fact about disease transmission caused by open defecation is the cyclic nature of problems that victims begin to manifest. The most common diseases caused by this unsanitary act are increased cases of diarrhoea, regular stomach upsets and poor overall health. With diarrhoea, for instance, it means that people cannot make their way to distant places due to the urgency of their calls of nature, so they pass waste close to where they have their bowel attacks.
Chris Williams, executive director at the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, WSSCC, stressed that open defecation has been a serious health risk in the world’s poorer countries, spreading disease, affecting economic productivity and claiming lives unnecessarily.
UNICEF once noted that open defecation, remains a big challenge as only three of the 774 LGAs in Nigeria are open defecation free. They also found that over 88 per cent of cases of diarrhoea cases in Nigerian children are traceable to open defecation. World Bank figures show that the federal government needs to invest about N2.88 trillion ($8.3 billion) to effectively check open defecation in different parts the country.
Many have blamed the government for not providing adequate public toilets. Adequate provision of toilets has been one of the things the United Nations wants to achieve with the Sustainable Development Goals 16 and 17. It was in line with this that Toilet Day is marked every November 19th across the world. World Toilet Day is about nature-based solutions to human sanitation needs.
Every year, health experts across the world stress that absence of adequate hygienic toilet for billions of people around the world, means human faeces on a massive scale, is not being captured or treated, thereby contaminating the water and soil that sustain human life. They believe man is turning his environment into an open sewer, instead of building toilets and sanitation systems that work in harmony with ecosystems.
The absence adequate public toilet has opened a means of making money for certain individual to go into public toilet management business. Some have even upgraded it with mobile toilets to serve people during social events. Also, there are some private companies, like RB West Africa, makers of Harpic who have taken the challenge of creating awareness and educating Nigerians on the importance of better hygiene practices and improved health prevention through prevention of open defecation.