27 November 2012

Nigeria: Taking World Toilet Day Serious


The significance of World Toilet Day, marked every November 19, appeared to have been lost on governments on the African continent.

This is particularly so in Nigeria, where no effort was made, except by nongovernmental organisations, to draw attention to the acute shortage of toilets in the country. This represents a failure on the part of governments and politicians to link the promotion of the human dignity and equality of the masses of citizens with the provision of effective sewage disposal, thereby promoting adequate sanitation. Colonial-era practices by which governments deployed health auxiliaries to direct rural populations to be self-reliant by digging pit latrines while most rural and riverside residents defecated in bushes, open fields or into bodies of water, are still prevalent.

Thus, the global decline in hygiene is most pronounced in developing countries. According to the NGO water.org, over 2.5 billion people don't have access to toilet, an environmental and health hazard that can be gauged in the prevalence of water- and airborne diseases in developing countries.

Municipal authorities these days do not provide adequate public toilets and developing the means and culture of maintaining them. Rural markets lack supplies of drinking water; water for washing hands after defecation and adequate toilet facilities. Urban authorities also fail to ensure that toilets are part of designs of open spaces, supermarkets and common markets, shops, bus depots, entertainment parks and sides of streets. Education authorities, including university campuses, tend to ignore the provision of sewage facilities. Female students at all levels of education, particularly those of particular age range, suffer embarrassments and often keep away from attendance of lessons and lectures due to absence of safe and decent toilets.

The task of raising public awareness to see linkages between open defecation and the transmission of diseases like typhoid, cholera, and bilharzias, remains unattended to. Bizarre scenes of otherwise highly-regarded public and private figures parking their expensive-looking vehicle on a bridge and urinating into the river or lake below deserve as much attention for enlightenment by officials of the National Orientation Agency (NOA) and Ministry of Culture and Tourism as do pedestrians defecating on urban roads. Such unwholesome practices were in abeyance following their prohibition by government campaigns such the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) and its variants. This should be a guide to devise measures consistent with current trends to bring sanity to environmental and hygiene practices in the society. Such campaigns depicted images that preached against defecation in open spaces, showing that this constituted an erosion of moral decency.

Shopping complexes, motor parks, hotels, sports stadia and parks must routinely provide adequate and decent "rest rooms" that should be maintained and be available for the convenience of members of the public.

One urgent challenge is that of organising fares for engineers and architects to evolve toilet structures that are suitable in Nigeria's various cultural and geophysical settings. For instance, to tackle huge urban populations in its streets, India came up with street-clean pay-toilets which became an instant success. Zimbabwe's sanitation engineers have also created a design which has been adopted by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In some societies, cultural taboos like a mother-in-law sharing the same toilet as her son-in-law; or visitors using toilets adjacent to sitting rooms, need to be integrated into housing designs by architects. In India there are instances of women valuing defecating in open spaces where they can combine toilet activity with exchange of information and gossip after their families have had their evening meals. Urban planners, health engineers, cultural gatekeepers and local authorities have to take on diverse needs. Above all, they must put decent and adequate sewage disposal for all as an important issue in democratic good governance.

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