The significance of sanitation to safeguard human health is undisputable, it is essential for human dignity, health and well-being.
Open defecation, which has become a daily occurrence in many parts of Nigeria, is not only a practice that infringes on human dignity, but that which in addition has severe consequences on people’s health and on the environment.
Pressed by the urge to respond to the call of nature, many Nigerians throw caution to the winds and resort to depositing faeces in gutters, canals, roadsides, bushes and corners.
In houses where there are no proper toilet systems, occupants defecate inside polythene bags, and throw them into open spaces and adjourning premises; sometimes, they drop them behind their houses.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), open defecation is the practice by people going out “in fields, bushes, forests, open bodies of water or other open spaces, rather than using the toilet to defecate”.
Despite the existence of environmental laws and efforts by the Nigerian government to improve sanitation and reduce the high rate of open defecation that is defacing the country, Nigeria is at the verge of becoming the world capital city of open defecation.
A Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) specialist in UNICEF, Mr Bioye Ogunjobi, says indications emerged recently that, in less than one month, Nigerian will emerge the capital city of open defecation with over 47 million still practicing open defecation in the country.
Ogunjobi explained that India, which now held that position, would quit it for Nigeria in October when open defecation would be outlawed in that country.
“By October 1, 2019, India which at present occupies that position will ban open defecation and Nigeria which currently occupies the second position will take over from India as the number one open defecation country,’’ he said.
Ogunjobi says in terms of geopolitical zone, North-Central has the highest percentage with 53.9 per cent of its population still practicing open defecation.
He says the North-East has 21.8 per cent, while North-West has 10.3 per cent, South-East; 22.4 per cent, South-South; 17.9 per cent and South-West; 28.0 per cent.
Experts are worried that these 47 million Nigerians who defecate in the open do not know that they are drinking and eating their “shit’’ thereby, increasing their exposure to health risks and even death.
Dr Bamidele Iwalokun, Head, Immunology and Vaccinology Research Department, Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Yaba in Lagos, told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that the ingestion of human faeces is possible and common in communities with open defecation or without improved toilets.
Iwalokun says open defecation is one behaviour that has serious negative impact on human health and the health of other living organisms consumed by human beings.
“Faeces is a waste product from the body and it contains organisms that can cause several diseases such as Diarrhoea, Sepsis, Cholera, Typhoid, Dysentery and Viral infections; which when people, especially children that are immune-compromised are affected and the risk of death is very high.
“When you defecate openly, which most times is done on the top soil, flies which are major carriers of waterborne diseases perch on the faeces and also perch on food items at home or market places, which many people consume, especially in areas where hygiene is also poor.
“We eat such portion of faeces from our foods,’’ he told NAN.
“Another way of transmission is during rainy season, the faeces are washed into drains and sources of water such as pipes that pass portable water, river, streams and wells as well as into the underground to contaminate borehole water used for drinking and cooking. This is a risk.
“The washed faeces can also enter rivers or lagoons and it can harm coastal lives or make them reservoirs of these pathogens that eventually get to humans through the food chain.
“This is why it is agreed that you might be eating and drinking your shit unknowingly,’’ he said.
Iwalokun called for intensified awareness on the fact that people can actually eat and drink their own “Shit’’ through open defecation, get infected and even die as a result of it.
“People do not know the health implication; therefore, awareness needs to be created to change attitudes and behaviours.
“Educate households on the need to have toilets and access to clean water, educate them on the need to maintain good hygiene by boiling or adding chlorine to treat their water as well as hand hygiene after using toilet with running water and soap,’’ Iwalokun said.
Analysts are blaming the alarming rate of open defecation on poor sanitation; lack of public toilets, poor housing system and hasty urbanisation that result in slums, lack of awareness and non-enforcement of Public Health and Environmental Laws in the country.
A Public Health expert, Dr Jude Obiocha of the Rock Hospital, Awka, Anambra, observes that when houses are badly constructed or hastily built like in slums, people are bound to defecate openly and there is bound to be poor sanitation.
He restates that open defecation constitutes serious health hazards that can lead to death of humans; and therefore, should be criminalised to eliminate the menace in the country.
He urged the Federal Government through the National Environmental Standards Regulations and Enforcement Agency (NESREA), Ministries of the Environment and Water Resources, to work with environmental health officers at the local government level to spell out criminal sanctions for open defecation.
“When you defecate openly, you are indirectly causing harm to human health and life. It’s as good as causing harm or death of another; which is supposed to be a criminal offence.
“These officers should be saddled with inspection of houses to ensure they have proper toilets as well ensuring that sanctions are imposed on those caught defecating in open places,’’ he said.
An environmentalist, Mr Ries Fakuade, says open defecation is a serious issue that needs urgent attention because it affects the whole nation.
According to him, it is a major cause of water borne diseases that kill and increase mortality rates, especially in children.
The expert says that open defecation not only affects individuals but the economic and social development of the nation.
“Open defecation contaminates agricultural products and increases the risk of crops being infected by pests.
“It slows down development, especially economically and socially because if there is a challenge in health issues in the county, people will be less productive, and the economy suffers.
“Lack of sanctions against perpetrators promotes open defecation in our society, therefore, there is the need to sanction offenders because they are setting us back as a nation,’’ said Fakuade.
Mr Olayemi Olaniyi, Convener, A Nigeria That Works Movement, says open defecation should no longer be acceptable in the society because of the devastating impact on public health, nutrition, education and economic productivity.
“Offenders have to be punished. Persons caught should be taken to court and made to pay a reasonable fine; failure to comply, the person should be jailed.
“When people know they can be jailed for defecating openly, then they will comply,’’ Olaniyi said.
From a legal view, a lawyer, Mr Ogunade, says open defecation is dangerous to human health and life as it can cause a whole lot of untold diseases and mortality, and should be made a serious public offence.
Ogunade said that government could provide public toilets through Public/Private Partnership (PPP) by coordinating collaboration with organisations such as Eateries, Filling Stations and other companies.
“When this is done, you can now criminalise and enforce the law against open defecation.
“For people to take the government serious, offenders must be punished through the due process which can be publicity or `Name and Shame’, to serve as deterrent. Community service will also do for offenders,’’ Ogunade said.
A Community Health expert, Dr Emeka Ani, also said that open defecation should be a crime punishable by monetary fines on any member of the community found indulging in the act.
Ani urged communities to embrace the measure, as it would go a long way in curtailing the scourge of open defecation and improve the hygiene and general health status of residents.
“The community leaders can set up taskforce to monitor the environment and apprehend those defecating in the open,’’ he said.
Also, a health-related non-governmental organisation (NGO), Toilet Kulture, urges the Federal Government to provide toilet facilities on highways in order to eliminate open defecation in the country.
Mrs Elsie Ozika, the Executive Director of the organisation, advises that the construction of toilets on highways will help to boost the fight against open defecation.
According to her, people travel every day and nature is something that one cannot control, and therefore toilets should be constructed along highways.
“Areas such as Abuja-Lokoja, Ibadan-Lagos, Aba-Port Harcourt are among many of the highways that the government should construct toilet facilities,’’ she suggested.
The Nigerian government is, however, putting measures in place to address open defecation, Mrs Chizoma Okpala, Acting Coordinator, “Clean Nigeria, Use the Toilet’’ campaign, says the Federal Government’s initiative is designed to reach many unsaved populations.
Okpala says that becoming an open defecation free country does not happen overnight. It takes a process of mobilisation, engagement, and action to carry out an advocacy visit to sensitise and mobilise the support of political, traditional and religious leaders and community members.
“It is, therefore, a civic responsibility for all of us,’’ she said.
Also, the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu, recently urged the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) to make open defecation and reckless urination an offence.
Adamu said this during a visit to the Minister of FCT, Mohammad Bello, as part of a robust National Action Plan to secure the buy-in of all stakeholders, including state governors into “Clean Nigeria, Use the Toilet’’ initiative.
It is necessary for the line Ministries, Departments and Agencies, (MDAs), Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), the Private Sector, the media and the entire people of Nigeria to unite in the campaign and efforts to end Open Defecation in the country before 2025.
This is for Nigeria to reap huge benefits by savings the humongous healthcare costs and increased productivity when citizens are healthy,’’ he said.
By Lucy Osuizigbo, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)