In October 2019, Nigeria overtook India with a population almost seven times bigger and a land area three-and-a-half times bigger, to become the number one open-defecation nation globally. Suleiman Adamu, Nigeria’s minister of Water Resources, described the situation as a “national shame’’.
Currently, more than 46 million Nigerians defecate in the open, according to the United Nations Children Fund- a situation public health experts described as very worrisome. This is despite efforts put in place by the federal government to exit the unenviable spot.
Open defecation is the act of passing excreta in open-air locations instead of in hygienic, covered locations. The phenomenon does not just occur in the rural areas of Nigeria but also in the cities, and among the educated class in public tertiary institutions, business, and residential areas. Nigerians defecate openly in and on bushes, gutters, sidewalks, motor parks, recreation parks, streets, and even around public facilities.
Apart from bringing a negative social stigma to Nigeria, which is touted as the giant of Africa, open defecation also poses environmental, health and economic problems for Nigeria. It exposes children and adults to critical health problems like diarrhoea which leads to untimely deaths.
Data from UNICEF show that about 102,000 children under the age of 5 lose their lives to diarrhoea every year. Available records also show that countries with higher rates of open defecation have the highest numbers of malnutrition, poverty and deaths of children 5 years or younger, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Quoting statistics from the World Bank report (2021) the minister of Water Resources, Aamu declared that Ngeria loses ₦455 billion or $3 billion annually due to poor sanitation. According to the same report, open defecation alone costs Nigeria over US$1bn a year.
Nigeria, has however put in place policies and plans to meet the target. In 2016, teh federal government launched an action aiming to end open defecation by 2025. The plan involves providing equitable access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services and strengthening tailored community approaches to total sanitation.
In November 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari declared a state of emergency in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector and launched a National Action Plan tagged ‘Clean Nigeria: Use the Toilet’ to jump-start the country’s journey towards becoming open defecation-free. In 2019, Buhari signed Executive Order 009, again, to tackle open defecation.
So far, at least 71 out of Nigeria’s 774 local government areas have now been declared ‘open defection free’. Zuma 1, a community in Bwari Area Council, of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja have been declared open-defecation free. Zuma 1 is predominantly occupied by the Gbagyi people and is known for its farming activities.
Chinelo Ebrike, the deputy director of Water Supply of Federal Capital Territory Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency (RUWASSA), in 2021, announced that Kuchigoyi, Zuma 1 and Zuma 2 are communities in Bwari that have attained the open defecation-free status.
Zuma 1 takes ownership of the open-defecation-free goal
When this reporter visited Zuma 1 community, it was observed that the community took ownership of the journey that saw it becoming open-defecation free. Nuhu Packachi, the Sarikin of Zuma 1, while narrating the community’s journey through an interpreter, said representatives from the federal government and non-governmental organisation visited the community with the aim of promoting environmental hygiene and sanitation and convinced him of the need to eradicate open defecation and effectively handle waste management.
Having been intimated on the importance of having toilets, water sanitation and hygiene facilities, Pakachi issued an order mandating every household without toilets to get one. Before the directive was issued, he noted that the community convened a meeting, and it was agreed that every household will build a toilet inside their various houses. Households who could not afford the water system toilet were urged to at least dig a pit toilet.
“Before now, we had the problem of people going into bushes and defecating instead of using a toilet. A non-governmental organisation visited some years ago and they brought public waste bins to ensure proper disposal of wastes and I was impressed with the outcome. After some visits from government and non-governmental organisations, I understood the consequences of defecating in the open and directed every household to build toilets in their house. We held meetings and agreed on a timeline for every household to build their own toilets. We banned open defecation, and people made an effort, they accepted the idea to end open-defecation” he said.
Water Easy Toilets (WET) model gain wide acceptance
BusinessDay observed that the Water Easy Toilets is one the most popular type of toilet used by households in the community. This WETs are plastic toilets, it gained high acceptance as it was much more convenient to use and easy to install compared to the pit toilet. WETs are recognised by potential users as more affordable and attractive, according to a 2019 report on ‘Sustainable Total Sanitation in Nigeria’, by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
The Sarakin informed that a non-governmental organisation brought the WETs and distributed them for free to all households without a water system toilet.
Rejoice Yakubu, a resident of the community said the plastic toilet was very easy to mount and use, even much better than the pit toilet.
“The Sarikin said everybody must get a toilet, we built a pit toilet, then this organisation came and distributed free plastic toilets. It was very easy to mount, and we enjoy using it in my house, ” she said.
Hosanna Friday, another resident also noted that the decision to make ownership of toilets compulsory was very instrumental in helping the community attain the Open-Defecation-Free status. He said, “When the message came, everybody was mandated to own a toilet. If you go around, hardly will you find any house without a toilet. People don’t defecate in the open anymore, it is no longer a common practice. Many houses now use the plastic toilets and as you can also see, the community is neat and very peaceful. We understand ourselves here and we work together, we also hold meetings to discuss regularly.
“The initiative is very good for the community and nobody defecates in the public,” he added.
Friday, however, noted that there is no mechanism put in place by either the community or the organisations that drove the initiative to ensure sustained compliance. According to him, there could still be deviant ones in the community who will disobey the order especially as there is no penalty for noncompliance.
“A lot of households complied and open defecation has been tackled, but we don’t have any punishment or fine to compel those who may want to disobey, we just trust the responsibility of every household and individual,” he further said.
Friday also told our correspondent that the community is enjoying improved hygiene since the toilet initiative kicked off, adding that there are fewer cases of diseases across the community.
Zuma 1, is just one out few communities declared open defecation-free. This menace is still practices in thousands of communities across the country.
During the 2021 World Toilet Day, UNICEF today revealed that there has been limited progress over the last two years in the fight against open defecation in Nigeria. The UN agency notes that Nigeria needs to build two million toilets annually to achieve the desired feat.
The 2021 Water, Sanitation and Hygiene National Outcome Routine Mapping (WASHNORM 111) report showed an increase in the number of Nigerians practising open defecation, from 46 million in 2019 to 48 million in 2021.
However, public health experts are optimistic that if India, with a population of almost seven times bigger and a land area three-and-a-half times bigger than Nigeria, can eradicate or drastically reduce open defecation, Nigeria can do so, but consistent and deliberate actions are needed.
This story has been supported by Nigeria Health watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems, solutionsjournalism.org