What is Open Defecation?

Open defecation is the empting of bowels in the open without the use of properly designed structures built for handling of human waste such as toilets. Open defecation is particularly associated with rural and poverty stricken regions of the world, especially Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Open defecation statistics from around the world have shown a statistical relationship between the regions that have the highest percentage of those that do not use toilets or other human waste facilities and low education or poverty. The World Bank Statistics suggest that regions with high rates of open defecation experiences tremendous problem in terms of sanitation and proper waste management.


According to Wikipedia,

Open defecation is the human practice of defecating outside—in the open. In lieu of toilets, people use fields, bushes, forests, open bodies of water or other open space. The practice is common where sanitation infrastructure is not available. About 892 million people, or 12 percent of the global population, practice open defecation.

Reasons for Open Defecation

The reasons that have been given for people who don’t use toilets have either been poverty that makes it a challenge to build latrines or lack of government support in providing such facilities. In cases where the toilets are available but people still end up preferring opened defecation, the reasons can extend to cultural issues related with sharing toilets among family members.

An example is a case where it is forbidden for a man to share the same toilet with his daughter in law. In some other cases, people end up preferring open air defecation due to the freedom it gives them as opposed to using a small dark structure or the displeasure in using toilets that are filthy or not clean.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), India accounts for 59 per cent of the 1.1 billion people in the world who practice open defecation leading to some serious negative effects on both their own health and the environment. Let’s look at the how open defecation affects human health and the environment

Effects on Human Health

1. Water borne diseases

Diarrhoea and other problems associated with the ingesting and exposure to human waste affect children under the age of 5 years the most since they are very susceptible to diseases. This exposure is because most of open defecation happens next to water ways and rivers. In urban areas, this can include the drainage systems that are usually meant to traffic rain water away from urban areas into natural water ways.

Such areas are often preferred because open defecators have a belief that the water washes away their waste. What they seem to forget is that most of such areas are not properly empowered to treat the water to remove human waste and the microbes that move with it. Such a practice is contrary to proper sewage channels that treats waste black water and channel it into water systems free of any disease causing germs afterwards.

Therefore, the result of open defecation near water ways is that it is carried into the water system minus treatment. As a consequence, the contaminated water ends up in the main water source. When people in these regions use the water as it for drinking and cooking (since the water is not boiled most of the time because of poverty and lack of education) it results in water borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and trachoma.

2. Vector borne diseases

Apart from water borne diseases, when the human waste collects into heaps, it attracts flies and other insects. These flies then travel around the surrounding areas, carrying defecate matter and disease causing microbes, where they then land on food and drink that people go ahead and ingest unknowingly. In such cases, the flies act as direct transmitters of diseases such as cholera.

3. Compounding the problem of disease exposure

The saddest fact about disease transmission caused by open defecation is the cyclic nature of problems that then begin to manifest. The most common diseases caused by this unsanitary act are increased cases of diarrhoea, regular stomach upsets and poor overall health. With diarrhoea, for instance, it means that people cannot make their way to distant places due to the urgency of their calls of nature, so they pass waste close to where they have their bowel attacks.

It simply ends up creating more of the same problems that started the disease in the first place and in turn, leads to more people catching diseases and less people using the facilities. The result of this is more sick people and more opportunities for the disease to spread.

4. Malnutrition in children

Malnutrition in children is another health problem associated with open defecation. Once a child is a victim of one of the diseases passed on due to the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene, they begin to lose a lot of fluids and lack of appetite for food. As a result, it gives rise to many cases of malnutrition in children.

Also, the situation is worsened by intestinal worm attacks passed through the human refuse. Altogether, these problems lead to stunted growth and weakened immune system that makes the child more susceptible to other diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Effects on the Environment

1. Contamination via microbes

The environment also suffers as a result of open defecation because it introduces toxins and bacteria into the ecosystem in amounts that it cannot handle or break down at a time. This leads to build up of filth. Also, the load of microbes can become so great that in the end, they end up in aquatic systems thereby causing harm to aquatic life.

At the same time, it can contribute to eutrophication or the formation of algal blooms that form disgusting scum on the surface of the water ways which disturb aquatic life underneath the water by preventing oxygen and light diffusion into the water.

2. Visual and olfactory pollution

Heaps of human or just the sight of it cause eyesore and nauseate anyone who is close. The stink emanating from the refuse is also highly unappealing and pollutes the surrounding air. Such places also attract large swarms that make the area completely unattractive for the eye.

For all those unfortunate to see the regions affected, it creates a sorry sight and reduces the dignity of all those living in the squalor of those regions. The smells augment the problem by disgusting those who live within the affected regions making life awful.

Solutions of Open Defecation

To solve this issue, it takes the action of individuals and even the intervention of the government to address the cultural, economic and social challenges in tandem.

1. Provision of toilets

First, there is a need to ensure that there are enough toilets. Since these regions are usually very poor, it will take the efforts of the government as well as the good will of local organisations such as CBOs and NGOs to help fix the problem. Construction of pit latrines and other toilet options such as compost toilets is necessary to help deal with the problem of lacking sewer systems. Governments should also try to establish incentives for people to build their own toilets by providing subsidies and putting up public toilets in strategic locations. 

2. Corrective civil education

Another platform that needs to be addressed is the negative cultural association that people have with toilets. The people should be informed and given civic education to enable them break away from their cultural beliefs on issues such as the fact that toilets are not supposed to be shared.

In other words, cultural norms and beliefs must be changed over time through education and awareness creation. With time, people can become informed and drop the beliefs or at least adjust and make concessions about the ones that are most destructive.

3. Incentivise public hygiene participation

By creating government programs that encourage sanitation and personal hygiene, individuals must be involved and forced to take up the responsibility of enhancing their hygiene as well as overall health.

Through such programs, people can get to learn the importance of their environments and work towards ensuring that they do not harm themselves by partaking in open defecation. It eventually reduces healthcare burdens on the government and lessens the number of those who practice open defecation as it will be seen as a terrible activity.

Image credit: flickr


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