Etim Etim writes that eradicating OD would drastically eliminate some of the diseases that afflict our communities

You can pretty much gauge the extent of our underdevelopment by some of our habits and conducts. Street hawking, throwing trash out of the car window and dumping refuse at road junctions are some of the bad routines of a growing nation, but none defines our wretchedness and speaks to our basic instincts in evolution as open defecation. Virtually every African country indulges in it, and India, hitherto the poverty capital of the world, has just freed itself from the practice. Open defecation or OD, to give it a more elegant toga, pollutes water sources in our communities and therefore impacts negatively on the health and wellbeing of the people. It’s the major reason water-borne ailments are rampant; so eradicating OD would drastically eliminate some of the diseases that afflict our communities, reduce medical bills and bring down deaths in adults; and child and infant mortality in which we have been recording alarming statistics. Open defecation is a challenge that can afflict every member of the community but women are often at more risk of experiencing violence and multiple health vulnerabilities. Women with poor sanitation facilities are more susceptible to hookworm infestation resulting in maternal anaemia, which in turn is directly associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Some researchers have also noted that OD could expose women to physical, verbal and sexual attacks. In communities without household toileting facilities, women walk long distances from home to find convenient places to relieve themselves. This predisposes them to different forms of assault and abuse. Of all the 774 LGAs in our country, only 33 are open defecation-free (OPF), meaning every resident has toilet facilities at home and in public places. The number could grow to 50 when current validation of others is completed by year-end. In all, over 46 million Nigerians practice open defecation, down from 47 in 2018, and this is the largest population practicing OD in Africa, expectedly because we are the most populous in the continent. Other African countries are also tackling the problem at their own pace because curtailing OD is target 6.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations to which all countries have subscribed. The UN recognizes that sanitation is directly related to individual Human Rights, therefore diseases arising from poor sanitation and open defecation are tantamount to human right violations.

The Nigerian government has set 2025, five years from now, as the deadline by which the nation would be free from open defecation in line with the revised global targets set by the United Nations. Nigeria is inspired by India which took 600 million people off OD in five years between 2014 and 2019 during which 90 million toilets were built. But taking off 46 million from OD could be tall order for us going by our records in meeting previous deadlines and targets. But this time, the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu who is driving the federal government’s agenda to eliminate the practice, says it is achievable. ‘’We are making steady progress’’, he told this writer recently, pointing out that working with partners like UNICEF, Nollywood and even Nigerians in Diaspora and other partners, the country is deploying aggressive sensitization and mobilization to encourage communities to build toilet facilities. Corporate Nigeria is also asked to make elimination of OD part of their CSR activities. The stakes are high. The country loses N455 billion (about N1.2 billion) to poor sanitation and requires N959 billion to eliminate OD.

Of the N959 billion, N725 billion is the estimated cost of toilets to be borne by households, while N234 billion will be borne by government in the ratio 40:60 for federal and state. Support are also expected from development partners and private sector through their CSR.

With India off the list, Nigeria has the largest number of people who indulges in this habit. It is a badge of shame the federal government is not willing to stick with. Last year November, President Muhammadu Buhari signed Executive 009 which empowers the Federal Ministry of Water Resources (FMWR) to work with state governments to stop the practice. But the results from the states have been a mixed bag. While others have been enthusiastic about the campaign, many of them are generally lukewarm in throwing their weight behind it. I salute Jigawa, Ekiti, Kaduna, Benue, Osun, Ondo, Gombe and Cross River which are leading the way in the campaign. In fact, Obanliku LGA in Cross River was the first of the 774 in the country to be OD free. In all, only 33 LGAs in Bauchi, Jigawa, Cross River, Benue, Akwa Ibom, Katsina, Kano, Kaduna and Osun States are OD-free, of the 774 LGAs we have in the country. To boost the campaign, the FMWR is working with National Orientation Agency to ramp up community sensitization. But despite these efforts, it is a shame that some states have not even flagged off the ODF campaign.

Part of the nation’s strategies is essentially the implementation of the community-led Total Sanitation as one of the approaches to tackle sanitation issues. More successes would be recorded if our state governors, who prefer to erect fancy buildings and monuments as evidence of achievements, approach the ODF campaign with more energy and gusto. In previous health campaigns like the fight against polio and HIV/AIDS, state chief executives were important partners with the federal government. In the case of polio which we eradicated only last year, traditional institutions were very invaluable in their advocacy and mobilization. We can use them again in this case.

While India’s approach was to ask the people to build themselves toilets and get reimbursed by the state, Nigeria, working with various partners and initiatives, is motivating communities to build these toilets themselves through advocacy and mobilization. I suggest that our various governments should also bring in some level of compulsion through legislation. Every petrol station, market, shop, place of worship, etc., should keep clean toilet facilities. In the rural areas, LGAs should provide public toilets at specific locations while community leaders and traditional rulers should encourage each household to provide one for themselves. There is provision for state governments to appoint Sanitary Inspectors who should visit households in rural areas to confirm the availability of toileting facilities. Unfortunately, many states are not implementing this vigorously.