I love toilets! For one, a toilet is a place where I take care of my sanitary needs. Beyond this, it is a place where I find inspiration, the concentration required to derive some meaning (to life and other subjects) and where I am able to meditate. But this was not always the case. In my younger days living in ‘face-me-I-face-you,’ all we had was a bucket toilet and it was one of the most dreaded parts of the compound. This is not least because it smelled! Our toilet was also unpleasant because it was shared with reptiles of different shades (including snakes!).
In my vague recollection of those childhood years, sometimes the entire compound fell ill from ‘strange’ conditions, some of ‘our’ father’s died of these illnesses (I doubt that they were over 50 years old, and given my lack of remembrance of their exact illnesses, it is difficult to link their deaths to the condition of the toilet, but no doubts the poor sanitary conditions contributed a great deal to their poor health, especially given the close proximity between our piped water tap and toilet). Our toilet was certainly not the best place to go to at night because we feared witches inhabited the surroundings during those hours (and the place was dark!).
Poor sanitary conditions and absence of toilets sometimes lead to ‘littering,’ a situation where faeces is disposed in open, and even public, places. There are other situations such as the use of ‘shot put’ (also known as ‘flying toilets’) where faeces is disposed off in the bush or River or other flowing waters using non-biodegradable plastic bags which inevitably contributes to poor environmental conditions for human and aquatic life. These situations have implications for public health, security and safety. In relation to security and safety, James Wilson and George Kelling, postulate in their broken windows theory that norm setting and signalling have an effect of urban disorder. Their thesis suggests that one means of fighting crime is to ensure that particular locales are neat as a means to signal that the area is well ordered and disruptive behaviour is not welcome. This implies that if the reverse were the case, chances are, such a place will become a breeding ground for crime and law breaking (because the poor conditions signal that such is the norm).
Interestingly, in many cases, the parts of urban areas from which crime emanates are the ones with poor sanitary conditions. (I do not suggest causality, as I reckon that the causal direction could be as a result of several other confounding factors, for example socio-economic status, however, the role that poor sanitary conditions play cannot be underestimated). There is no doubt that walking 500m to 1km to access a toilet could have implications for personal safety. Studies in urban slums (such as Kibera in Kenya) suggest that women could be vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse in the process of walking such distances to access share/ communal toilets. More so, this creates a situation of fear (the 2007 state of the World Toilets report emphasises this much). Poor access to water in many urban slums (and even ‘regular’ houses) results in poor sanitary conditions of many toilets (at household, shared, communal and public levels).
Nigeria suffers what I call ‘severe toilet deficit’ (this is in spite of the fact that the World Bank considers its 23 per cent access to flush toilets as impressive among its ‘rich’ country peers on the African continent). I believe that the ratio of toilets to persons (or toilets per capita) could be as many as 1 to 100 (not empirically based. Nb: one way of calculating ‘toilets per capita’ could be household or census data, using number of users per household, shared, communal or public toilet). In many urban and rural areas, short put method is quite common and some toilets are potentially shared by as many as 100 or more households. The lack of toilets is easily noticeable around our beaches which are contaminated by faeces (in addition to other forms of human waste). Nigeria contributes her fair share to the estimated global population of over 2.6 million people who lack toilets, and as Water aid estimates, over 40 per cent of the world’s population who lack ‘safe, clean or private place to go to the toilet.’
Unfortunately, many public institutions like schools, civil service offices and private companies do not have functional and decent toilets. In some cases, the existent ones are either ‘flooded’, too dirty or reserved for the ‘big ogas and madams.’ This is a sad situation, and I believe that it has particularly depressing implications for productivity and learning. When I was in secondary school, we never had a toilet and even as boarding students, we had to make do with the shot put method or go down to the water side’s ‘hanging toilet,’ a journey no one dared make at night. The costs of discomfort this situation caused, the cost of ‘journeys’ to waterside toilet and ultimately the cost to our learning and productiveness as students can only be imagined.
It is my firm belief that we can achieve equity of toilet distribution and reduce the deficit through improved regulations, targeted policies and firm political commitment at local government, state and national levels. No doubts this will require massive investments in the development of an integrated sewerage system in many of our cities and delivery of piped water to homes (the World Bank estimates that ‘access to improved water in urban areas is 75 percent, versus 45 percent in rural areas’ in Nigeria). In addition, costs will be incurred in the strengthening of environmental regulation offices across the board as a means to ensure the enforcement of extant regulations (which could include an insistence on certain number of toilets for public facilities calculated on the basis of number of expected users). This should include the review and enforcement of regulations around the building of adequate toilets in schools (both government and private), churches, civil service buildings and all other public utility facilities like bars and restaurants.
The costs not withstanding, these measures apart from improving access to toilets could reduce the cost of private sewerage facilities (what we call ‘suck away’), create new jobs, potentially contribute to the reduction of young women’s vulnerability (one less contributory factor!), reduce crime and reduce mortality. Water aid estimates that 5 per cent of GDP is lost to illnesses caused by lack of adequate sanitation and water. This can certainly be saved by better investments in sanitation facilities. The gains in individual health, economic and psychological terms are immense and it will be a major mile stone towards achieving the Millennium development goal to halve poor sanitation by 2015.
Toilets are very crucial to our well-being, and it is my hope that many of our cities will grow, over the next couple of years, to the point where it will be taken for granted. A crucial indicator of this will be lower numbers of locked-up toilets in public places. I am looking forward, and will add my voice towards the realisation of this aspiration.