Nigeria’s odorous reputation for widespread open defecation and how to shake it off have bounced back into public discourse. Re-tabling the challenges at a forum recently, the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu, lamented the ineffectiveness of states in enforcing water and sanitation regulations and their indifference to such issues. Given its importance, however, the three tiers of government should revive, improve, and collaboratively implement policies to eliminate OD as part of an overall strategy on water and sanitation.
Adamu raised the Federal Government‘s concerns about the lack of progress in attaining the 2025 Open Defecation-Free Country Status target at the opening of the national retreat for states on the ‘Clean Nigeria: Use the Toilet’ campaign in Abuja. Essentially, he bemoaned states’ nonchalance to solving the problem. He disclosed that apart from Jigawa State that is OD-free, only Katsina State was taking steps to achieve a similar feat.
This is unfortunate as the active buy-in of states and their vigorous implementation of ameliorative programmes are essential for success. Far removed from the country’s vast hinterland and grassroots, the central government’s funding and programmes would continue to have limited impact.
But OD is a serious problem deserving of equally serious attention by the states and LGs with robust support from the Federal Government, international agencies and non-profits.
According to the World Health Organisation/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme on Water Supply, OD is the practice of relieving oneself in fields, bushes, bodies of water and other spaces. Target 6.2 of the UN-SDGs mandates countries to end open defecation and provide access to sufficient and even-handed sanitation and hygiene, especially to women and girls prone to socioeconomic and cultural risks.
The WHO/UNICEF JMP identifies Nigeria as one of the countries with high prevalence of OD practices in the world, where 25 per cent to 50 per cent of its citizens engage in it. Its economic links are revealed in World Bank data showing a higher prevalence in low-income, least developed, highly indebted, fragile, or war-torn countries.
The reality is vivid in Nigeria: the eyesore of people reliving themselves in canals, near the bushes, along the roads, and around railways, schools, faith-based complexes and markets is evident in both the urban and rural areas. Highway medians and roadsides are splattered with foul-smelling, congealed human waste around the country.
However, some countries have succeeded in stamping out the habit, including Brazil, Russia, China, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Egypt. Like Nigeria, Indonesia is struggling and has 6.0 per cent OD prevalence, and India has 15 per cent.
In December 2022, the government announced that 100 LGAs across 13 out of the 36 states were OD-free. Jigawa in the North-West was declared totally OD-free, while Anambra, Akwa Ibom, Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Cross River, Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Osun, Yobe, and Zamfara each had some OD-free LGAs. Sadly, states hosting the country’s largest commercial cities like Lagos, Rivers, and Anambra are stubbornly OD-prevalent centres. So is the Federal Capital Territory.
UNICEF said Nigeria needs to build 20 million household toilets, and 43,000 toilets in schools, health centres, and public places to become a clean and healthy country and become OD-free by 2025.
Governments should start an emergency programme to meet this target. They should address its root causes. Experts link the motivation for open defecation to ignorance and habitual social lifestyles by most of the communities. Crucially, the lack of water supply, the absence of working toilet facilities, and the poor maintenance of the existing few are also triggers. At some toilet facilities, operators demand payment for their use. This forces some people to seek alternatives.
Its negative impact on health has been highlighted by UNICEF that says OD contaminates the environment. This has a ripple effect on the development of the child, especially child mortality, morbidity, under-nutrition, stunting, and poor cognitive development.
Public health experts say OD increases the risk of intrusion into the privacy of women and girls, leading to rape and other acts of sexual exploitation. They (women and girls) are often faced with animal and insect attacks when they defecate openly; this exposes them to risks of infections.
The World Bank adds that OD sustains the lifecycle of bacteria and fungi near sources of drinking water, thereby causing diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and other water-borne diseases. In 2019, diarrhoea was the second most prevalent disease that killed children between the ages of one and five. The 2018 Global Burden of Disease Study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation showed that it could lead to about 132,000 deaths in Nigeria annually.
Cholera struck in the same year, 2020, as the devastating COVID-19 pandemic; the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control recorded 65,145 suspected cholera cases, including 2,141 deaths across the federation. In September 2021, the death toll was 25 persons in Ogun State alone.
Eventually, 11 states were hit by cholera and the NCDC linked its prowess to the widespread OD practice. Therefore, states should discourage poor hygiene and provide potable water and basic health facilities in rural areas.
Executive Order OO9, the Open Defecation-Free Nigeria by 2025 and Other Related Matters Order 2019, issued by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), though commendable, has not curtailed it due to poor implementation by the Clean Nigeria Secretariat saddled with the implementation, monitoring and compliance of a new toilet culture.
Nigeria can take a cue from India. Although it is yet to eliminate OD completely, its campaign has been described as “the world’s most extensive programme aimed at eliminating open defecation,” by UNICEF. By 2019, it had provided toilets to 105 million households, using decentralised policies, community-based interventions and fostering effective behavioural changes through collective action.
Sri Lanka spent $22 million to tackle the menace, building toilets in 250,000 homes and involving private cleaning companies to ensure clean toilets in bus and railway stations.
To end OD, says UNICEF, Nigeria will need N959 billion to fund eradication programmes. There is a need for a synergy between states and the Federal Government to achieve desired outcomes.
While it is important to provide public toilets and functional water supply in markets, schools, public and private institutions should, by law, provide and properly maintain public toilets. The states and LGs should get serious and make eradication of OD a priority.
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