CHIENGE, Zambia — Most people living in developed nations have access to a bathroom whenever necessary, but for much of the world’s population, sanitation is a luxury. About 2.5 billion people have no access to improved sanitation facilities, and because of this, about 15 percent of the population must resort to open defecation. In sub-Saharan Africa, where sanitation coverage is the lowest, about 70 percent of people have no access to improved sanitation. This is not a mere inconvenience: lack of sanitation and open defecation leads to dangerous health issues in poor communities.
Open defecation can be linked to high child mortality rates. Diarrhea is a leading killer of children under five, and this condition can be spread through poor sanitation and hygiene. In communities that lack improved sanitation facilities, such as private toilets and hand washing stations, human waste may end up in rivers or streams used for drinking water, leading to the spread of life threatening water-borne diseases. Lack of sanitation also has an impact on educational progress: children are more likely to miss school due to disease. But female students suffer the most, as they are more likely to drop out of school without access to sex-segregated toilets.
The issue of sanitation access is often overlooked in development aid programs, and many people are completely unaware of the problem. But for struggling communities, open defecation cannot be ignored. Over the past year, Zambia has been working to eliminate open defecation, and recently, reached an important milestone in improving access to sanitation.
In Zambia, 50 percent of the population lacks access to sanitation facilities, and over 25 percent of schools lack safe water supplies and sanitation facilities. This is one reason that primary school enrollment currently stands at 72 percent, with only 65 percent of girls finishing primary school. The lack of toilets and hand washing facilities forces many girls to miss school frequently, and eventually, many of them drop out. These issues prompted the Zambian government to come together with UNICEF and Akros, a global health organization, to create a plan for ending open defecation in the country.
The effort began with training health workers and village chiefs to teach villagers about the importance of safe hygiene practices and how proper sanitation prevents disease. Eventually, volunteers started working with villagers to build simple pit latrines, complete with soap and water for hand-washing. By April, the Chienge district became the first district in Zambia to be declared free of open defecation: every household now has at least one private latrine and a place for hand washing.
The work does not stop with Chienge: the Zambian government wants the entire country to be free of open defecation in the next five years. Thousands in Chienge are already benefitting from improved sanitation sources and hygiene practices, and now the district can provide a successful model for other Zambian communities.
Open defecation is a poorly understood issue in wealthy countries, but raising awareness is crucial. Not only are basic sanitation facilities the first step in preventing diseases, having access to sex-segregated toilets at school makes it possible for more children, especially girls, to get an education. Zambia’s recent achievement is a positive indicator of future progress in sanitation access.
– Jane Harkness