Nigeria’s deplorable state of water sanitation and hygiene was an issue of public discourse recently and the verdict was that of gloom and doom. Water sanitation and hygiene, or WASH for short, provides the latest symbol of the country’s continued slide in the provision of social and health infrastructure that makes living a meaningful experience. After years of paying lip service to the eradication of open defecation and provision of safe drinking water for the people, Nigeria still lags behind virtually every nation on these scores.
So hopeless is the situation that UNICEF said recently that a state of emergency had been declared to deal with it. Zaid Jurji, UNICEF’s Chief WASH Specialist, explained that, after lingering among the top five countries for more than 15 years in the practice of open defecation, Nigeria has now shot into the lead in Africa and is second only to India globally. In what he perceived as a misplacement of priorities, Jurji lamented, “One hundred and forty million have cell phones (in Nigeria); meanwhile only 97 million have access to improved sanitation.”
This is no doubt another emblem of shame for a country that is so richly blessed in resources but is dogged by poverty and backwardness; she recently overtook India as home to the poorest in the world and was declared the worst place for a child to be born in a study conducted by Economist Intelligence Unit of London in 2013. Nigeria is also a country with the third highest tuberculosis burden in the world, after Indonesia and India. Among other dubious distinctions, she is one of only three countries that still actively transmit polio in the world. No country should be comfortable being associated with these statistics.
It is estimated that about 60 million Nigerians lack access to clean drinking water, while WaterAid, a civil society organisation, puts the figure at 87 per cent of the entire Nigerian population. But a study reportedly released by the World Bank on August 28, 2017 said the number of city dwellers with access to public water was less than 10 per cent in 2015, down from 25 per cent in 1990. This is a clear indication that, while access to water globally has improved, with the world achieving the 88 per cent target set under the Millennium Development Goal five years before the 2015 date, Nigeria’s fortunes have actually taken a dive. Having failed to meet the MDG target on water and sanitation, there is a palpable fear that the 2030 target for the Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goal will also be missed.
Beyond rhetoric and tokenism, there is the need for a strong response from the government to reverse this retrograding trend. WASH is a concept designed to sharpen the focus on the challenge of increasing people’s access to water sanitation and hygiene. According to UNICEF, WASH is a collective term that emphasises the interdependence of the three concepts. “For example, without toilets, water resources become contaminated; without clean water, basic hygiene practices are not possible,” UNICEF explains.
In Nigeria, many people trek long distances in search of water, which may not even be suitable for drinking. In the rural areas, many still drink from open streams, rivers, shallow wells and ponds. For instance, people in Idu community, within the Federal Capital Territory, share the same source of drinking water with cows, which exposes them to the possibility of zoonotic disease infections. Besides, open water sources are also in danger of contamination from pathogens in faeces whenever it rains.
The danger of ingesting food contaminated with human faeces cannot be overemphasised. According to the World Health Organisation, a mere one gram of faeces contains 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs.
Apart from the economic loss to both individuals and the country – the latter put at 455 billion annually – the cost of lack of adequate water and sanitation is felt in the number of infectious diseases that are contracted, especially by children. Such diseases include diarrhoea, leading to malnutrition, polio, cholera and stunting, among others. There is also the problem of loss of dignity and privacy, especially among women, who are forced to go into the bush to defecate in the open; they could be sexually assaulted. Everybody that practices open defecation is exposed to the danger of attack by wild animals, especially snakes.
In a 2016 opinion article in the international edition of The Guardian of London, the number of people practising open defecation in India was put at 564 million out of a population of over 1.2 billion people. Also, 50 million children were estimated to have become stunted due to exposure to micro-organisms contained in human faeces.
It is needless to say that these diseases lead to avoidable deaths. They also drain the pocket in the process of paying for treatment. This is why the government has to take the right steps by investing in WASH. Jurji said it would cost Nigeria N234 billion to meet the 2030 SDG goal of ending open defecation. This should not be too much to spare, especially when the cost to the nation of not tackling the problem is put at N455 billion.
The government, working in partnership with private investors, should expand access to water. It should also be made mandatory that houses should no longer be built without toilets, which should also be a compulsory presence in all public facilities. The National Action Plan developed by the Ministry of Water Resources should be speedily activated just as the National Water Resource Bill should be passed. Nothing should be left to chance to ensure that Nigeria meets the 2030 SDG target.