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How Shortage Of Toilets Energises Open Defecation



As absurd as it may sound, open defecation as a practice, is something most Nigerians engage in daily. In this report, Victoria Omuya Usman writes on how shortage of six million toilets in Nigeria has fuel the culture that has put the nation at the top of yet another bad list of attitudes.

“Mummy I stepped on something,’’ the little three-year-old shouted to his mother as they walked by the narrow bush path that leads them home every day after school. ‘‘Let’s see,’’ she replied turning to him, but almost at the same time, her phone beeped. ‘‘Finally,’’ she whispered to herself as she peeked at her phone, suddenly forgetting to attend to her son. She spent the next 15 seconds looking steadily at the phone and trying to read the message that she’s been waiting for all day under a hot blazing sun.

By the time she was done and turned to her son again, he was holding up his hands to her and asking her to ‘behold’ what he had stepped on. She got close and figured out immediately what the young lad had smeared on his hands with the most disgusting look on her face. Her son had not just stepped on some grown persons feaces, but he also had it in his hands and would have been grinning from side to side if she was sharing in his excitement. She wasn’t.

From across the country, stories like this abound because of the long standing awful practice of open defecation.

It was a shocking discovery for 27-year-old Amaka, an ex-corps member who just arrived Abuja in search of a job to see people defecating openly in the nation’s capital.

“I was dazed to find out that people defecate in very clean open drainages in the Mubushi area of Abuja. I wasn’t expecting that people could openly do that in our capital city. They do that with so much impunity, unchallenged and people generally don’t care. For me, it is really abnormal,” she said.

Open defecation in Abuja may have shocked the young ex-corps member but the trend in the nation’s capital is in fact a culture than a mere habit of a few persons who are mostly homeless. It is very common to walk by drainages anywhere in the city and be embarrassed by the presence of the dues that an individual has had to pay nature for engaging her in a combat of satisfaction.

The lack of public toilets in the city may have encouraged the practice. A tour round the major commercial parts of the city revealed different responses from residents who say they have never seen nor visited any publicly managed toilet in the capital city.

Residents say it is worst for women in the city centre who often rely on the hospitality of some major hotels who allow them to use their toilets to avoid the embarrassment of easing themselves in the public.

It is worst in adjourning towns and communities around the Federal Capital City (FCC) with many people relying on path ways, bush paths and their immediate environments to defecate.

Those who defecate openly in big cities do not live in the cities. They live in the nearest suburbs and since most of them do not even have decent homes to live in, they also have no access to toilets.

These people live in shack houses that they have put together themselves. And even though they are surrounded by houses with decent latrines, these set have to make do with the open spaces around. Settlements like these are habited by people who have come from far states to make a living in urban areas. And every suburb has such a settlement.

‘‘We are used to holding the urge to defecate until it’s late at night,’’ one of the residents of these kind of places said. ‘‘The only thing that worried us for a long time was where to bath, but that has been taken care of too with this shack.’’ He pointed to one that stood side by side two others where they slept every night.

The shack in question is designed to cover just the upper body (to the shoulders) of anyone who is in it. That is where they have their bath and urinate all day long. And where does all the water go? It flows to the road through a channel that has been made for it to join in the menace to society. The stench around these places, as is to be expected, is usually on a level that cannot be endured.

People defecate openly for a number of reasons. While most people do because they do not have access to a toilet either at home or a public one, others, reports have said, do so for cultural reasons. Whether it is for the first, second or both reasons, open defecation is a practice that must be stopped, the world over.

Reports have it that an estimated 72 per cent (678 million) of the 892 million people practicing open defecation in the world live in just seven countries with Nigeria inclusive. And the embarrassing practice is a health hazard waiting to happen in all of the communities where it is still being practiced.

Open defecation is not limited to defecating in open space alone. UNICEF defines it to also include people going out “in open bodies of water to defecate.” What this means is that, in very remote places where the source of water is limited to just a river or two, the water body serves the all-round purpose of quenching thirst, washing clothes and bodies and also disposing of faeces.   

That is why the practice, no doubt, remains a huge contributor to the spread of bacterial diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, typhoid and polio infections. Diarrhoea is the second largest killer of children below five years in Nigeria, only next to Pneumonia, reports say. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 88 per cent of diarrhoea cases are attributable to factors essentially originating from poor management of human excreta.

Those who suffer the most from this infections are usually the children. According to a 2012 World Bank report, approximately 121,800 Nigerians, including 87,000 children under five, die each year from diarrhoea – nearly 90 per cent is directly attributed to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Because there are more African countries with a huge number of their population still defecating in open places, several African governments are interested in partnering with international bodies to end the practice. The United Nations (UN) on their part, are making known their resolve to put a lasting end to the scourge mainly through public awareness, enactment of legislation against the act, construction of public toilets among other interventions.

Ending open defecation is an indicator the United Nations is using to measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal Number 6. The body believes that extreme poverty and lack of sanitation are statistically linked. Therefore, eliminating open defecation is thought to be an important part of the effort to eliminate poverty.

While countries like India, where nearly half the country’s population used to practice open defecation have set a target to eradicate the practice as soon as 2019, the road map for Nigeria is designed to eradicate the scourge by 2025.

For Nigeria to be open defecation free by the set year, a 2012 Water and Sanitation Programme report proposed that the country needed a total of about 6,500,000 latrines. And UNICEF is working closely with the government to help bring that to fruition.

UNICEF’s programmes are designed to, ‘‘help provide safe access to clean water, ensure access and use of basic toilets, facilitate community-led initiatives to build, maintain and use basic toilets, and nurture good hygiene practices, especially hand washing with soap,’’ says Eva Hinds, UNICEF’s communication specialist in Nigeria.

UNICEF also reports that, of the over six million toilets needed, more than 6,000 improved ones have already been constructed in three states over the past two years. And the construction was done with the community members’ own resources.

Apart from building the required number of latrines, the government is also looking at providing sanitation facilities to numerous institutions such as schools, health centres, market centres, motor parks, highway eateries, jetties and religious places, so that people who visit these places can have decent ways of easing themselves for the period of time they are there.

Ms Hinds attests to the fact that the ministry of Water Resources is the leading ministry mandated to work with the sanitation sector in Nigeria. ‘‘The ministry,’’ she says, ‘‘is at the forefront of promoting demand for sanitation and working closely with partners to enable the private sector to support in addressing supply related constraints. Together with partners, the ministry has developed strategic plans to address the issue of open defecation in the country.’’

So far, according to UNICEF, there are more than 13,000 villages that are open defecation free in Nigeria.


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