Nigeria’s age-old culture of open defecation has stubbornly held sway in many parts of the country, in spite of the rapid urbanisation being witnessed across the land. It is a mark of bad governance that a practice that should rightly belong to the past is still in the ascendancy, despite the havoc it wreaks on the society.
Health experts say three factors are responsible for widespread open defecation: poverty, lack of lavatories and ingrained cultural norm, which makes the practice socially accepted in some parts of the society. While state governments should persuasively get communities to understand the health and economic consequences of defecating outside, there is also the need to coerce communities to stop open defecation, by adopting methods and passing laws that are more stringent and have a top-down approach.
Describing open defecation as a mark of underdevelopment would be stating the obvious. Yet, as backward as it may seem, open defecation is sadly not limited to rural communities alone, but is also widely practised in urban areas, where many slums have sprung up and people tend to build houses with no thought for the provision of adequate sanitation or toilet facilities.
Needless to say, this is an uncivilised culture that continuously casts a blight on the country. It is a phenomenon that should engage the interest of the country’s political and health authorities, not only because of its obvious negative image on the society but also due to the grave health implications for the population, especially the children, who are the most vulnerable.
Open defecation is defined by UNICEF as the practice of people going out “in fields, bushes, forests, open bodies of water or other open spaces, rather than using the toilet to defecate.” Although common in India, where 521 million people or nearly half the country’s population, are involved, Nigeria is one of the top three countries in the world whose citizens are steeped in the practice.
“The situation of sanitation in Nigeria is alarming. Nigeria is third worldwide when it comes to open defecation; one third of the population practise it,” a top UNICEF official, Zaid Jurji, said in 2017. Jurji rightly wondered why Nigeria, which he described a “heavyweight country” that is held in high regard globally, should still be entangled in this infamy.
Open defecation has been implicated in many cases of cholera, diarrhoea, hepatitis, polio and typhoid fever, among other diseases in the country. “In fact, over 88 per cent of diarrhoea in children, the fastest killer of children under the age of five in Nigeria, is caused by open defecation,” said Jurji, who is worried that Nigeria may not even meet the global target of 2030 for ending the backward practice.
Apart from weakening children through frequent diarrhoea, exposure to open defecation, experts say, also makes them susceptible to conditions such as stunting and malnutrition. It, in addition, increases the risk of polio infection, especially as the faecal-oral route is seen as an important transmission pathway. It is not surprising that Nigeria has found it extremely difficult to eliminate polio despite years of efforts, mostly sponsored by international agencies.
It has been confirmed that just a gram of faeces contains approximately 10 million viruses, one million bacteria and a thousand parasite cysts. It has also been revealed that children’s faeces, which are most likely to be handled more carelessly, contain more bacteria than adults’. The absence of serious commitment to eradicating the practice of open defecation can therefore not be separated from the perennial outbreak of cholera as well as other such diseases witnessed in Nigeria, but which have been virtually eliminated in other parts of the world, where citizens’ access to sanitation and clean water is not inhibited.
Beyond the diseases associated with open defecation, there are also other dangers such as attacks by snakes or other wild animals while defecating in the wild. Women could also be assaulted or even raped in the process. In places where there may be no bushes, people have to bear the inconvenience of waiting until nightfall to defecate in the open. In some other situations, people defecate inside their homes and only get rid of the excrement during the night. Many Nigerians live under such deplorable conditions.
While, in rural areas, the availability of bushes facilitates the practice of open defecation, in cities, faeces are disposed of sometimes in public places. For instance, in certain areas of Lagos, people go to the rail tracks at night to defecate, while others approach any refuse dump to do so. Flies easily perch on these faecal discharges and bring back with them disease-causing microbes, which are later passed on to humans.
In a society that means well for its citizens, there is no option but to invest heavily in eradicating open defecation. At a recent media dialogue in Jos, in Plateau State, it was revealed that the country would require an investment of $8.3 billion to effectively check open defecation. If the country considers her most valuable asset to be the human capital, nothing should be considered too much to invest in its development. This was the view of the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, when he visited Nigeria recently.
To effectively tackle this appalling culture, there should be a concerted effort to provide toilets in public places so that people would not have recourse to relieving themselves in the open. Town planners and other government agencies in charge of the environment have to ensure that toilets are not just an afterthought when putting up a structure. Water and sanitation are essential elements in containing the unbridled practice of open defecation.
In India, the country has set a target of 2019 for the eradication of open defecation, adopting a system referred to as Swatch Bharat Mission. This is based on working in partnership with UNICEF to generate awareness and share information about the need for change and to embrace a culture of sanitation and hygiene.
It is not as if Nigeria has no plans to end open defecation. In fact, there is a road map that is supposed to make the country open defecation-free by 2025. But it does not just end with setting targets; all hands should be on deck to ensure that this uncivilised culture becomes a thing of the past.