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Breaking the silence on open defecation

Rasak Musbau

“I am moved by the fact that a child dies every 2 and a half minutes from diseases linked to open defecation. Those are silent deaths – not reported on in the media, not the subject of public debate. Let’s not remain silent any longer”. The above quotation from the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, is a clear reflection on the danger of open defecation which has been a common practice in many nations, towns and villages for centuries. It is a practice whereby a person defecates in an open area not meant for that purpose.
Sadly, this practice is still prevalent in Nigeria. Out of about one billion people that practice open defecation worldwide, about 49 million are Nigerians while 600 million reside in India.  It is however estimated that around 68 million Nigerians are likely to be added between now and 2025, if concerted efforts are not made to arrest the problem. According to Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (2011), Ekiti state contributes highest to open defecation practice with 60.8 percent followed by Plateau and Oyo states with 56.2 and 54.0 percent respectively. Abia state has the lowest rate followed by Lagos at 1.2 and 2.0 percent respectively. Kano state has 4.0 percent while Zamfara, Benue and Kwara states have 9.8, 52.5 and 50.5 respectively.
Open defecation is one of the fundamental aspects of sanitation that mirrors our underdevelopment as a nation. It is a terrible practice with various consequences on human health, dignity and security, the environment, and social and economic development. The profoundly damaging health and developmental consequences of this menace has often been overshadowed by other aspects of our socio-economic life that is also in decay. It is still common to see people defecating openly along the road. Walking along the railroad tracks even gives one more panoramic view of things as people- male and female engage in mass open defecation. On the streets, behind bushes, in groves of trees, in rivers or streams, inside drainages, dump sites, in rocky communities, motor parks and markets, people litter everywhere with defecation. Even some of the fanciest areas are not exempted.
Meanwhile, Eliason’s linkage of open defecation to child mortality cannot be queried. Before it triggers death, it contaminates food, transmits skin diseases, respiratory diseases, eye problems, scabies, intestinal parasites resulting in kidney damage, tuberculosis and diarrhoea related diseases. A recent study also claimed that open defecation can also cause mental and cognitive stunting to young children.
Many people seem not to understand that the quality of our lives as human beings is substantially a reflection of the quality of the environment which we inhabit. Many still seem not to comprehend that open defecation creates a host of problems that exceed the merely aesthetic. The spread of numerous gastrointestinal and diarrheal diseases is associated with it, whether through direct contact with faecal matter or via tainted food and water.  According to World Health Organization, 88 percent of diarrhoea cases are attributable to poor excreta management. Diarrhoea is the second largest killer of children below 5 years, only next to pneumonia yet open defecation practice is commonplace in our great country.
Another thing that should trouble us is the revelation by World Bank Report in 2012 that Nigeria loses N455 billion annually due to poor sanitation. This is 1.3 per cent of the national GDP. It should also be understood that individual produces 200 gram of human faeces every day. Just imagine the volume of faeces that goes in to the river and those that end up on our source of water and food when there is flood. In a nutshell, most, if not all of us, unknowingly eat and drink faeces. More disturbing is that  a WHO research reveals that one gram faeces of an infected person can have up to 10,000,000 viruses, 1,000,000 bacteria and 1000 parasite cyst and 100 parasite eggs.
There is, therefore, an urgent need to join Jan Eliasson, in the campaign to break the silence on open defecation and give sanitation the priority attention it deserve in our national life. Content of the recently developed national road map for the elimination of open defecation should be followed to the letter. It is heart-warming that states such as Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Ondo, Ekiti, Edo and Delta have developed their respective road maps. Efforts of UNICEF B Field Office is commended on this, for its technical and financial assistance for the road map develop in Abuja and that of states recently develop in Ibadan between 12-14 of November, 2014.
Nigeria is currently off track to meeting the MDG target of having the proportion of people without sustainable access to improved sanitation and water supply. The question now is: Can Nigeria achieves Open Defecation free by 2025? Yes, we can. What is required is a functional state system that will trigger the process, active role by corporate organizations and ingenuity on the part of citizens. There is need for public convenience across the roads. In Lagos, many will be familiar with the tagline, ‘Shit Business is Serious Business”. It is a slogan coined by the late Otunba Ghadaffi, the man who spearheaded mobile toilets business. Today, the business he began with the sum of 60,000 naira, now earns over 120 million annually. This is where private enterprises come to fore in tackling open defecation. Corporate organizations must also do its bit. The success recorded in the fight against Ebola disease is an eye opener to collectivity approach to achieving success. Building of toilet here and there and mass education by corporate world can work the magic. Equally, at the community level, community and religious leaders should lend support to good sanitation.
As problems related to open defecation gain greater attention, the importance of broader WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) issues, such as access to clean drinking water, must gain traction as well.  One of the ways to trigger this is for all states in the federation to have functional rural water and sanitation agency that is well positioned to ensure tract to 2025 target of elimination of open defecation is maintained. As government is enjoined to stick to policy and legal measures, every Nigerians must elect to live a dignified life through toilet revolution. Until then, lack of adequate sanitation will continue to act as a handbrake on our economic development.

•Musbau writes from Alausa, Ikeja.

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