By Auwal Bala Muhammad
November 19th is the date the United Nations (UN) water and sanitation department, UN Water in collaboration with other health non-governmental organizations, sets aside each year since 2013 to celebrate World Toilet Day and to create awareness about the problem and provide solutions to tackle it. The importance of this day was realized when statistics showed nearly 1 in every 3 people in the world do not have access to a toilet, and is worse in countries of Sub-saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. This figure corresponds to nearly 2billion of the world’s population.
The theme of this year’s event is “We Can’t Wait” which means advocates for easy access to clean and safe toilets cannot wait any longer for those that are supposed to provide the facilities, and therefore it is time to take action now either individually or as a community.
The importance of proper disposal of sewage cannot be overemphasized. The lack of availability and in other cases where they are available, failure to use them is a vicious cycle that cannot be broken down unless people have access to toilets and use them properly. From diseases that cause acute mortality in children such as viral diarrheas and cholera, to those that cause morbidity (poliomyelitis), and malnutrition (helminthiasis), all can be eradicated if proper sewage disposal habits are thoroughly imbibed. Some regions of the world have since forgotten about them by just adopting good toilet habits.
This year the message that UN Water wants to pass is for us to realize the relationship between lack of sewage disposal facilities and childhood malnutrition. Children in communities with open sewage disposal do frequently have diarrheal diseases and typhoid fever that prevent nutrients to last in their system. Diarrhea causes the body to lose water and essential minerals and if it does not cause death, it causes the intestines to fail to absorb nutrients form food. Helminthic infections such as roundworm infestation are also common among children in these communities and they cause anaemia due to blood-sucking activity of the worms.
So what causes people to defecate indiscriminately? There are major and minor reasons. The major ones are poverty and lack of modern education. Rich people are more likely to have access to clean toilets even if they do not know how to use them, the same way that poor individuals who are educated will ensure they don’t defecate in the open. So these two factors of poverty and illiteracy have to be present at the same time in the same place. Countries with relatively higher level of modern education among its populace but are relatively economically less buoyant, such as Eastern European countries do not report having this problem. Such is the case with some countries in the Middle-East that are very rich but with relatively low level of western education. It is some regions in some countries such as Nigeria, Burkina Faso, India, and Bangladesh where there is both poverty and lack of modern education that the problem becomes prominent.
The minor causes may be from relatively low availability and where available, lack of cleanliness in these facilities especially in public places such as markets, motor parks, government schools and major roads, highways and streets.
To solve the problem therefore, these factors have to be confronted head-on. Here in Nigeria, the intended fight against poverty if handled well can go a long way in addressing the problem of poverty among the populace. The government will soon realize after implementation that they have not only invested in the people’s poverty but also in their education, health and other critical social sectors. The tackling of lack of modern education is the one that may prove a bit difficult since there are communities in this country that send their children and wards to religious schools only and will never or in the near future, agree to send them to conventional schools. These children, who lack proper housing and shelter in their schools, not to talk of toilets, are the ones involved in open defecation and thus most vulnerable in contracting the above mentioned diseases. They are in most cases, the harbingers and transmitters as well, and therefore their situation also calls for urgent addressing. The Almajiri model schools built by previous administration in a state in this country, can go a long way in tackling this problem if revisited.
Local government authorities and the people’s representatives in the National Assembly may be the ones responsible for addressing the problem of lack of availability of safe sewage disposal facilities in their communities and in the public places mentioned. Most of them as part of their constituency projects do build bore-holes for their communities’ access to safe drinking water. The global health situation is now changing that wherever ‘water’ is mentioned by development agencies, ‘sanitation’ follows.+