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Nigeria’s desperate battle to end open defecation

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On October 1, 2019, a 12-year-old boy known as Seyi, who lived in the Surulere area of Lagos, was found defecating in the open. Apparently the boy, who also hawked food items in the streets, had been under pressure to use a toilet. Unable to find one immediately, he had rushed to the front of a residential house on Joel Oguntade Street and emptied his bowel into a gutter. Then the owner of the house had raised the alarm, which attracted some hoodlums in the neighborhood to the scene.

As cruel and unbelievable as it seems, the hoodlums had decided to force the child to consume his own feces as punishment. This account of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man partly represents the harsh reality of living in Nigeria where household and public toilets are few and far between and open defecation is common.

According to a recent joint report by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund, 47 million Nigerians – about one in every four people– engages in open defecation. With this statistic, Nigeria is believed to have overtaken India as the world’s headquarters for open defecation.

Apart from constituting a nuisance to the general public, open defecation could aid the spread of deadly diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, poliomyelitis, et cetera.

Reacting to Nigeria’s recent ranking as the world’s open defecation capital, a consultant family physician, Dr. Enema Bamidele, said that every citizen of this country ought to be worried about it.

She said, “When people openly defecate, the waterways are polluted during the rainy season. When there are floods, there can be outbreaks of diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, and all the other gastrointestinal diseases.

“We have to be worried. In a country where there is a poor supply of potable water and many people drink from rivers and shallow wells, open defecation is dangerous.

“The immediate consequence of open defecation is that it will lead to an epidemic. When a lot of people fall ill at the same time, they cannot go to work and will affect the economy, as well as overstretch the health care delivery system.”

Nigeria is yet to win the war against polio and the outbreaks of cholera are still common. For example, Ogun State is currently battling a health crisis triggered by an outbreak of cholera, which has claimed the lives of five residents and left several others in the hospital.

As they struggle to contain the killer disease continues, Ogun State has declared a war on open defecation. The Permanent Secretary in the state Ministry of Health, Dr. Adesanya Ayinde, said Governor Dapo Abiodun had directed inspection of houses in the state with a view to sealing those that lack toilets and arresting the landlords.

“The governor opined that open defecation in the 21st century has become unacceptable the world over, given the fact that it is capable of unleashing dangerous diseases, such as cholera and typhoid, on humans,” Ayinde said.

From the position of the Ogun State Government, the consequences of open defecation are not lost on the Nigerian authorities. However, efforts aimed at ending the practice remain but a mere drop in the ocean.

At a recent event held in Abuja, the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu, said that Nigeria’s ranking as the world’s open defecation capital posed a serious concern to all due to the immense economic consequences.

Also, arguing that the habit was inimical to the social development of the country, Adamu added, “Beside the exposure to diseases, there is a lack of dignity that is inherent in open defecation practices, particularly with regard to women and girls. As such, there is also a gender inequality issue that must be addressed with urgency.

“If effective solutions are not found, the non-availability of sanitation facilities inadvertently exposes women and girls to violence, including rape, when they are forced to go out at night to defecate in the open.”

He noted that in 2016, the Federal Government developed a national strategy for making Nigeria open defecation free by 2025. Unfortunately, three years after, only 14 out of the 774 local government areas in the country have been certified open defecation free.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Children’s Fund has said that for Nigeria to achieve its dream of becoming open defecation free, it must invest an average of N100bn annually on the construction of toilets.

The international body estimated that Nigeria needs to build “nearly 20 million household toilets and 43,000 toilets in public places, schools, and health centers.”

In the wake of Nigeria’s unenviable ranking, President Muhammadu Buhari signed Executive Order 009 to end open defecation in the country by 2025.

The Presidency said the move became necessary as open defecation had contributed to Nigeria’s failure to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

It explained that part of the strategies to end open defecation was to implement the National Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene Action Plan to improve access to pipe-borne water and hygiene.

“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, market places, hospitals, and offices, have accessible toilets and latrines on their premises,” the Federal Government said.

As Nigeria’s quest to end open defecation is directly tied to the ability of the citizens to access good water supply, advocacy group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, called for accountability in the spending of budgetary allocations to the Ministry of Water Resources over the years.

The Deputy Director, SERAP, Kolawole Oludare, said, “Many toilets in public offices are not functioning because of lack of water, while millions of Nigerians remain desperate for water in their homes. They often resort to contaminated sources of water supply or drill their own boreholes, which can become easily mixed with sewage, with negative environmental impact and devastating results for people’s health.

“That was why we sued the Minister of Water Resources last year and asked him to explain why millions of Nigerians had to resort to drinking water from contaminated sources with deadly health consequences, despite the authorities claiming to have spent trillions of naira on the sector since 1999.”

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