At age 60, Nigeria is riddled with the same issues that have plagued her before the turn of the century. Like a recalcitrant child that has refused to turn a new leaf, the acorn has grown into an oak, and has now developed branches of fully blown insecurity, fund embezzlement, inconsistent electricity, inefficient health sector, and bad roads. The subject of agitation in the media and reflectively in its citizens almost always circulates around these five areas, neglecting the tiny buds that have popped with time, and are now fast becoming major sources of concern in the parts of the country most affected.
I refer to the water sanitation and hygiene issues which surprisingly have garnered minimal media coverage and government intervention, but which if left continuously unattended will be a major news headline in only a few years to come. A 2020 UNICEF report corroborates this ‘prediction’, citing that Nigeria, the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa also ranks as one of the top three countries in the world in terms of the numbers of people living without access to safe water and sanitation, and ranks second, after India, for the number of people practicing Open Defecation.
It’s not just the stench, or the eyesore that residents have to bear every day, it is the less visible subliminal after-effect like the disease outbreaks and environmental damage that are likely to stem from it. Bioye Ogunjobi, a WASH Specialist during a 2019 Media Dialogue on “Sanitation – Clean Nigeria: Use the Toilet Campaign”, shared a statistic from Nigeria’s 2018 WASH NORM report that reveals the damage of this insidious practice. In his words, “Currently, only 13 local government areas from four States of Bauchi, Benue, Cross River and Jigawa are open defecation free. Currently 102, 000 children die annually due to sanitation-related diseases. According to him, North Central states lead in open defecation with 53.9 percent, followed by South West with 28.0 per cent, South East 22.4 per cent, South-South 17.9 percent and North East 10.3 per cent.
The subject of urban water sanitation and hygiene should not be on the backburner or considered an afterthought, but should be treated as the national emergency situation it has metastasised into. Issues of poor sanitation and hygiene are major human rights issues as it infringes on children’s right to live and grow in a safe environment where they can thrive. It also points at Nigeria’s inability to meet up with the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and possible failure to achieve Sustainable Development Goal -6, SDG 6 (which seeks to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030) if not adequately tackled.
The dangers of neglecting the plight of Nigerians who reside in urban regions that do not have potable water and functional toilet systems include but are not limited to; high infant mortality, low quality of life for older citizens, toxic environments, communicable diseases. Unfortunately, these effects are already occurring and could exacerbate if all hands are not on deck to take well researched and calculated steps. A classic example of this was the outbreak of cholera in Taraba state in 2019, as revealed during a courtesy visit to Governor Darius Ishaku. He stated this through the secretary to the state government, Mr. Anthony Jellason when delegates from a leading nongovernmental organisation on social accountability in Africa, Connected Development (CODE), led by its team lead on the USAID Effective-Water, Sanitation & Hygiene project, Ijeoma Oforka visited the governor’s office in Jalingo. Mr Jellason highlighted the lack of clean potable water as a major contributor to poor sanitation in the state. It is also worth mentioning that the advocacy of CODE was significant to the timely assent to the State Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) by Taraba state government.
Unfortunately, many states in Nigeria, including Delta state under the leadership of Governor Ifeanyi Okowa have been slow to implement the policies that will ensure the consistent provision of clean safe water and improved sanitation facilities for its residents. Despite incessant appeal to its policy makers by Connected Development [CODE] (with support from the USAID-EWASH), to fast-track the implementation of the WASH policies, only lofty plans by the Delta State Commissioner of Water Resources, Barr. Martin Okonta, has been stated, without much to record on execution. The obvious lack of enthusiasm by policymakers in Nigeria to ensure the provision of clean water to urban areas, is bound to set achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development backwards. Because of how central water and hygiene is to humans, pivotal areas like education, gender equality, economic growth, and overall well being is impeded. It is safe to say that negligence to SDG 6 is negligence to the 17 SDGs.
How Poor Sanitation Affects Women, Girls, Children and Disabled People
Sub Saharan Africa has the highest rate of infant mortality as 1 in 10 children die before age five due to hygiene and sanitation issues. A 2019 World Bank collection of development indicators reveals that infant mortality rate in Nigeria was reported at 74.2 %, and acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea (water borne disease) were tagged as the major causes. These illnesses not only affect the health of children, it also affects their education and social development as they have to stay away from school while being treated.
Girls are also on the receiving end when sanitation is treated with levity because their puberty years come with a lot of physical changes in the body and the beginning of their menstrual cycle. Providing clean water, private toilets and disposal facilities that ensures they can comfortably change their sanitary pads and clean themselves up without getting infected will help them to worry less when their cycle is about to begin, Their education is also not as stake when these facilities are provided as they will not have to miss school on days when they are menstruating. The same applies to working women, mothers and daughters.
Disabled people have been perpetually left behind while mapping the development plan of communities in Nigeria. It becomes expedient that the construction of public toilets makes allowances for the blind, the deaf, and the handicapped, so that they are able to comfortably use the facilities with little or no aid.
In advocating a nation where the clean sanitation of the public facilities and availability of water is prioritised, the government, stakeholders and community leaders must ensure that all hands must be on deck so that no one is left behind.
Providing Sustainable Solutions to Sanitation and Hygiene Issues in Nigeria
Due to the enormity and urgency of the project, it becomes imperative for the government to consult with stakeholders, key influencers and expert consultants who are actively working in the hygiene and sanitation space on how to effectively engage the citizens with the purpose of developing a sustainable and inclusive solution. Partnerships between the government at the State level and the local government will ensure that no stone is left unturned. Shunning corruption and overblown financial budget, thorough research, accurate planning and timely execution, all in a transparent fashion, will ensure a more positive outcome.
Working with social accountability organisations, like CODE, with an impeccable track record of ensuring that policies and project plans are followed through, will help the government focus on the most important things and build trust of the citizens. Engagement of members of the community, especially women and children will ensure their commitment to the project and create accountability among them with minimal external influence. Modeling best practices by prioritising the availability of clean water at central and easily accessible points, as well as the creation and maintenance of public toilet facilities, would improve the situation immensely and strengthen partnerships amongst stakeholders like the USAID.
Also important is the creation and strict implementation of regulations that outlaws open defecation, ensures improved sanitation and environmental hygiene. For example, designating particular days for cleaning of waterways, and punishing offenders who go ahead to practise open defecation despite the availability of functional washroom facilities, will send a message to other members of that community, and ensure compliance to the laid down rules. Empowering the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency (RUWASSA) with funds and technical knowledge to ensure accessibility of water in rural areas will also prevent overpopulation caused by rural-urban migration, and ensure that all residents in the state are well catered for.