By Afe Babalola
RECENTLY, and indeed in times past, Nigeria had led global demographics in open defecation. The blight of open defecation has, among the issues plaguing the nation, put Nigeria in negative limelight in world polity. Therefore, in this edition, I shall discuss the spate of open defecation in Nigeria as well as the adverse health implications of this unwholesome act, and possible solutions to ensure its complete eradication in Nigeria as a whole.
Open defecation, according to Wikipedia, is the human practice of defecating outside (in the open environment) rather than into a toilet. In carrying out this practice, people may make use of fields, bushes, forests, ditches, streets, canals, and perhaps, worse still, rivers, streams or other water sources. More often than not, people engage in open defecation either because they do not have a toilet readily accessible or due to traditional cultural practices.
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Interestingly, this practice is not limited to inhabitants of rural, underdeveloped, areas alone – sadly, it is a rather common experience in some of our federal and state-owned tertiary institutions in a parlance popularly known as throwing shotput. The existence of this practice in our tertiary institutions perhaps accounts for the failure of the institution’s management – and by extension the government – in providing a conducive learning atmosphere for students whereby basic human needs such as the need to use toilet facilities should not be accounted as a luxury.
The health implications of open defecation
The United Nations has noted that the countries where open defecation is most widely practised have the highest numbers of deaths of children under the age of five, as well as high levels of undernutrition, high levels of poverty and large disparities between the rich and poor. Furthermore, there are also strong gender impacts as lack of safe, private toilets makes women and girls vulnerable to violence and other forms of infectious diseases, which in turn could cause an impediment to girls’ education. Open defecation is an affront to the dignity, health and well-being, especially of girls and women. For example, hundreds of millions of girls and women around the world lack privacy when they are menstruating. Open defecation therefore risks exposing them to increased sexual exploitation and personal safety.
In another report, the United Nations’ Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) noted that open defecation has devastating consequences for public health. Faecal contamination of the environment and poor hygiene practices remain a leading cause of child mortality, morbidity, undernutrition and stunting, and can potentially have negative effects on cognitive development. Poor sanitation can also be a barrier to education and economic opportunity, with women and girls often particularly vulnerable to the consequences of poor sanitation services. The multiple adverse effects of poor sanitation show how SDG 6.2 underpins and will be crucial to achieving many other SDGs, including those related to nutrition, health, education, poverty and economic growth, and gender equality.
The Nigerian situation
Nigeria is among the nations in the world with the highest number of people practicing open defecation, estimated at over 47 million people. The practice has had a negative effect on the populace, especially children, in the areas of health and education and had contributed to the country’s failure to meet the Millennium Development Goal target.
Unfortunately, the spate of open defecation in Nigeria has reached a tipping point and caught the attention of the world. The United Nations’ Water, Sanitation & Hygiene National Outcome Routine Mapping (WASH NORM) carried out a survey in Nigeria back in 2018 and found that Nigeria ranks second among countries practising open defecation across the world. Findings from the survey show that 24 per cent of the population (47 million people) still practice open defecation. This means one in four Nigerians defecates outside.
In October 2019, however, it was announced by the UNICEF Chief of Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Said Jurji, that Nigeria has emerged the number one country in the world with the highest number of people practising open defecation. He noted as follows: “Nigeria has claimed the spot as that country with the highest number of people who defecate in the open. I am sure Nigerians do not feel happy about this stigma. Imagine that 47 million people here defecate in the open. They are deprived of their basic needs and we need to do something about it.”
Furthermore, the UNICEF Deputy Representative in Nigeria, Ms Pernille Ironside was reported to have stated that: “These statistics are alarming, so it seems to be the right moment to come together in an effort to co-create solutions to tackle the challenges affecting the health and well-being of Nigerians and impeding economic growth.” According to a December 2019 report, Ekiti State leads Nigeria in residents who practice open defecation, with a reported figure of over 1.4 million residents. Reportedly, two out of three residents in Ekiti State engage in this noxious practice.
Government’s efforts to curb the menace of open defecation
Unsurprisingly, there had been concerted efforts by the government – federal and state – to curb the incidence of open defecation across Nigeria. While considerable progress has been made in some states, others still fall far short of ensuring a hygienic living condition for their residents. The Ekiti State government, through its Commissioner for Infrastructure and Public Utilities informed the public of the state government’s commitment to ending open defecation in all parts of the state and stated that the provision of safe potable water and access to good sanitation, especially toilet facilities to ensure environmental hygiene, are key in achieving the goal latest by 2022.
The Commissioner is noted to have stated that: “with thorough sensitisation and enforcement, the state will certainly attain the Year 2022 target of open defection-free road map.” Similarly, the Minister of Water Resources had noted that the Federal Government was making moves to involve the private sector in tackling the problem of inadequate WASH services in the country and had launched the Organised Private Sector in Water Sanitation and Hygiene (OPSWASH) group.
The minister stated that as part of the effort to end open defecation in the country, a national roadmap towards making it Open Defecation Free (ODF) by 2025 was developed and launched in 2016, but that only minimal progress had been made in its implementation. As part of the government’s concerted efforts to remove Nigeria from its unenviable world ranking in open defecation, President Muhammadu Buhari, in November 2019, signed Executive Order 009 captioned ‘The Open Defecation-Free Nigeria by 2025 and Other Related Matters Order’, by which a national secretariat known as “Clean Nigeria Campaign Secretariat” was established in the Federal Ministry of Water Resources to implement the Executive Order 009 by ensuring that all public places including schools, hotels, fuel stations, places of worship, marketplaces, hospitals and offices have accessible toilets and latrines within their premises. Executive Order 009 declares as follows:
- That by this Order, Nigeria is committed to being open defecation free by 2025.
- That the National Open Defecation Free (ODF) Roadmap developed by the Federal Ministry of Water Resources with support from other key sector players across Nigeria be put into effect.
- a. There is established in the Federal Ministry of Water Resources a National Secretariat called “Clean Nigeria Campaign Secretariat”.
- The Secretariat is authorized on behalf of the President to implement this Order by ensuring that all public places including schools, hotels, fuel stations, places of worship, marketplaces, hospitals and offices have accessible toilets and latrines within their premises.
- All Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of government shall cooperate with the Clean Nigeria Campaign Secretariat.
- The National Assembly and the State Houses of Assembly shall enact legislation on the practice of open defecation with appropriate sanctions and penalties.
- All development projects shall include construction of sanitation facilities as an integral part of the approval and implementation process.
- The Secretariat shall terminate when Nigeria is declared Open Defecation Free.
- All enforcement authorities are hereby directed to diligently collaborate with the Federal Ministry of Water Resources in implementing this Order.
It is quite laudable that the Federal Government and some of the state governments have recognized the urgent need to end the spate of open defecation. Against the backdrop of this, I hereby make the following suggestions.
1.The Executive Order 009 signed by President Muhammadu Buhari should be given priority attention in terms of codification and enforcement. In so doing, stiff sanctions should be placed on schools, hotels, fuel stations, places of worship, marketplaces, hospitals and offices which have no accessible and functioning toilet facilities.
- The government – and indeed private individuals – should embark on aggressive rural water projects that will ensure that each community is provided with potable water and functioning toilet facilities.
- There should be proper sensitization of the public on the negative effects of open defecation on communal hygiene and safety. This awareness campaign can be carried out through the Ministry of Information and Culture or other parastatals. This can either be through print and audio-visual media or other forms of effective communication channels to reach as many people as possible.
- There ought to be provision of more healthcare facilities to cater for people whose health has been jeopardized as a result of contamination resulting from the practice of open defecation. This will help curtail mortality and morbidity rate associated with diarrheal and likewise infections.