Bowel relief is quite honestly the most human act I can think of. But somehow, it is one of the topics people are most shy to talk about. However, our relationship with this topic has not stopped us from performing the act. The proposed form of relief is this: find the nearest (or most comfortable) toilet and do your business. What happens when this primal urge lands when there are no safe and hygienic facilities to carry out your business? Well, that’s when we have Open Defecation.

What is Open Defecation?

Open defecation is the emptying of bowels in the open. It is done without the use of properly designed structures built for handling of human waste, such as toilets. Statistics from around the world show that poverty and low levels of education are highly correlated with open defecation.

Data suggests that regions with high rates of open defecation experience severe sanitation and waste management problems. India currently has the highest level of open defecation. It accounts for about 59% of the 1.1 billion people who practice open defecation. Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, is not far behind.

In a recent announcement, the Minister of Water Resources said that about 47 million Nigerians practice open defecation. The extent of open defecation ranges from 1.2% of households in Abia to 65.8% in Kogi. Other States that show higher than the national average (37%) include Ekiti (60.8%), Plateau (56.2%), Oyo (54.0%), Cross River (53.6%), Benue (52.9%), Taraba (52.5%), Nasarawa (50.8%), Kwara (50.5%, Enugu (48.6%), Jigawa (48.1%), Ondo (47.6%), Niger (47.5%), Ebonyi (45.5%), Osun (39.2%) and Kebbi (37.6%) (UNICEF, 2015).

If nothing changes, in ten years there could be an addition of 56 million Nigerians to this number. This is a very grim thought because open defecation has so many adverse effects.

Effects of Open Defecation

Health Disadvantages

One gram of feaces can contain up to 10,000,000 viruses and 1,000,000 bacteria. It could also contain 1,000 parasite cyst and 100 parasite eggs and pathogens. If left in an open space, flies, fluid(water), fingers and field carry the faeces. These elements become disease carriers and can infect other people, leading to different forms of ailments..

The repercussions can be extreme and according to reports from the World Bank, Nigeria is not ready for them. According to the World Bank, around 122,000 Nigerians (including 87,000 children under 5) die each year from diarrhoea. Water, sanitation and hygiene are directly responsible of nearly 90% of these deaths. Twenty-one comprehensive studies were carried out across several countries. These studies showed that improved sanitation resulted in a 36% reduction in diarrhoea morbidity.

Another health implication of open defecation that we do not consider is the high number of iron deficient children. Worm infestation is a major cause of Iron Deficiency Anaemia (IDA) among adolescent girls and young mothers. Open defecation often results in worm infestation. In Nigeria, this could be responsible for the death of 1 in every 15 children before their first birth. It could also be the reason why 1 in every 8 children does not survive to see his/her fifth birthday.

Economic Disadvantages

However, the scourge of open defecation and poor hygiene affects more than our health. Its effects are far reaching and affects the economy and productivity as well.  A 2012 World Bank Report showed that Nigeria loses NGN 455 billion (US$ 3 billion) annually due to poor sanitation. This works out to US$ 20 per capita/year and constitutes 1.3 percent of Nigeria’s GDP. According to the same report open defecation alone costs Nigeria over US$ 1 billion a year. The market potential of sanitation in the country is huge. Nigeria could gain financially if the 47 million people that defecate in the open presently opt for a toilet. The demand for material and labour, on a conservative estimate, works out to NGN 1250 billion (over US$ 8 billion).

Addressing this requires a lot of work and might seem like a daunting task for Nigeria. There is a high level of prevalence of poverty and illiteracy around Nigeria. The country is also in a high deficit state. It can barely continue to borrow to finance capital intensive projects such as this.

Case Study: Bangladesh

We can learn from Bangladesh on how to address the open defecation situation. Like Nigeria, Bangladesh has high levels of poverty and illiteracy. As at 2003, about 42 percent of Bangladeshis defecated openly. They relieved themselves along roadsides, behind bushes, beside homes or wherever they could find a place to go. However, by 2015, the country’s rate of open defecation was down to just 1 percent and 0 percent in urban areas.

A report from UNICEF and the World Health Organization called Bangladesh “open defecation free”. Bangladesh was able to achieve this feat through sustained efforts from all levels of governments. Collaborations from private organizations, NGO’s, donors and the UN also helped. In 2003, the government began a “sanitation for all” campaign. The strategy was held on a national level. The government mobilized external funds and 20% of the governments development budget to address the sanitation issues. Education about hygiene played a crucial role in the change. The government and their partners also ensured that sanitary latrines were available in urban slums and rural areas.  In rural areas where literacy rates are low, folk songs and plays were developed to get the message across.

How can Nigeria Improve?

According to experts, the biggest change factor is the availability of toilets. In many rural areas and slums, a large number of families share sanitary latrines or pit toilets. The Nigerian government should also offer incentives to sanitation entrepreneurs. This will plant the seed for a growing business in latrines and drive down the cost of installation. Local governments should also be given budget allocations on a competitive basis. They can be used to promote sanitation and make their local government areas “open defecation-free”.

This open defecation situation most be addressed if Nigeria is to truly develop. The most recent effort is the “Make Nigeria Open Defecation Free” by 2025 National Road Map. Several other committees and policies exist to address the issue, but much more needs to be done. The Minister of Water Resources recently sent a team to India to study their efforts. I would suggest he sends his team to Bangladesh instead.

Jemima Adejo
Jemima comes from an economics background, however, during an exchange year to Malaysia, she was introduced to Asian economic development, which created an interest in International Development. She is particularly interested in sustainable agriculture and food security, poverty reduction and education.