By Don Boys, Ph.D.
Africa’s biggest problem is not drought, disease, or dictators (all massive problems) but drinking and defecation! And this is similarly true of India, Asia, and areas of South America. Fully 80 percent of diseases in developing countries are caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.
Now for the first time in human history most people live in cities, often in the slums. More than 70 percent of Africa’s urban population lives in slums! Around one-third of the urban population in developing countries, nearly one billion people, live in slums, according to estimates. There is one toilet for every 500 people in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.
However, the biggest problem is in rural areas where the problem can be more quickly solved but not without difficulty. Nearly 540 million people, more than 60 percent of Africa’s population, currently practice open defecation according to the African Development Bank Group. And worldwide, more than a billion people still “go out back” to take care of one of life’s most important functions. Moreover, in all those areas, they do so where deadly cobras, lions, tigers, etc., roam freely–at night! Seems as if that ever-present danger would cause “bashful bladder” and “bashful bowel.”
Of the one billion people who still go “behind the house” to defecate, 82% live in ten nations: India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nepal, China, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Niger, and Mozambique. Note that the last five of those nations are in Africa.
The UN spent a huge amount of money to teach people in undeveloped nations to use a latrine but they admit it has been an “abysmal” failure and it seems they flushed their money down the toilet. UN officials admit that the problem is “attitude,” not only the absence of toilets. The WHO Public Health Director lamented, “What is shocking…is this picture of someone practicing open defecation and in the other hand having a mobile phone.” Is that multiple tasking in third world nations?
Such unhealthy, uncivilized, unnecessary practices as open defecation result in the problem of children playing in fecal matter and animals walking through disease laden matter, plus animals eating it. Add to that the problem of contaminated water runoff into wells and streams from which natives get their drinking water, wash their bodies, and wash their clothes. They use contaminated water to irrigate their crops, cook with, etc. Children play in the water. A hundred viruses come from human feces. It’s a surprise that anyone is still alive in Africa, India, and similar nations.
In many villages that have simply dug latrines (not a fancy concrete slab with a hole) the open pits are often located upstream thereby contaminating the water used for drinking, cooking, etc. Also, often the streams are used for defecation and urination. Seldom do people wash their hands after defecating and when they do so, the water is almost always contaminated!
Inadequate sewage treatment from large cities only adds to the other pollution and most cities pump toxins into the water and it poisons everything downstream and is added to the runoff from each village and agricultural area. Runoff from mines creates heavy metals such as nickel, molybdenum, zinc, cadmium and lead. All these contaminants produce a toxic “cocktail” that poisons every living creature downstream.
Where are the national and municipal leaders in all this? It would not take much money or ingenuity for a mayor or village chief to build a common toilet in the middle of a village. The free world has given trillions of dollars to African nations in the past 50 years and they haven’t solved two simple problems: How to drink and defecate safely. Corrupt national leaders are legendary but surely they could release a few dollars from their Swiss or Cayman Island bank accounts to solve these two basic problems.
The problem is more complex than it seems as expressed by a health official who said that “most people want toilets for reasons of convenience, privacy and status rather than ensuring healthy environment, good sanitation or the prevention of diseases.” Some believe that the feces of children are not harmful while others believe they will become demon possessed if they use an available village toilet.
There are 4 billion cases of diarrhea in Africa every year and about 2.2 million people die from it, most of them being children under two years old. Cholera, dysentery, typhoid, worm infestation, and malaria are killers especially of children. Malaria kills between 1 to 3 million people, 90 percent taking place in sub-Sahara Africa.
India boasts 1.2 billion people yet 600 millions of their citizens still defecate in the open and the numbers continue to grow! British rule for hundreds of years didn’t help in that regard.
According to National Geographic, the Ganges River at Allahabad is "one of the holiest spots in Hinduism. Allahabad, Persian for ‘settled by God,’ plays host every dozen years to the Kumbh Mela, the biggest gathering of humanity on Earth, when tens of millions of pilgrims come to wash away their sins at the confluence of the three rivers." Two problems: sins can never be washed away by water. The Bible teaches in I John 1:17 that “the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Water has nothing to do with personal salvation. Second problem is the Ganges River is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. It is flowing sewage.
Even more civilized nations such as Israel are not without filthy rivers. The Jordan River is one of the most polluted rivers in the world and I have baptized people in it a few times! I had no thought of pollution since the Jordan flows from the Sea of Galilee where I have boated and from which I have eaten fish many times.
After most of the Jordan water is diverted to irrigate the fruit orchards in Israel and neighboring Jordan, the remaining water flows into the Dead Sea. Without knowing of the pollution, I swam unthinkingly a few times in the Dead Sea. Untreated sewage water and agricultural runoff is responsible for polluting the river in which Christ was baptized.
But the big problem is Africa. Maybe some of the former colonial nations could “make restitution” for their former “evil” by digging wells and installing village pumps. That solves problem number one.
Problem number two can be solved by digging a hole (away from the water pump) and building thatched sides for privacy? Voilà, we have a privy or African Outhouse.
In this column I have theoretically solved Africa’s biggest problems so there should be jubilation from Angola to Zimbabwe! Maybe they will name their male outhouses after me.
And maybe tomorrow I will clean up the polluted rivers starting with the Jordan.
Dr. Don Boys is a former member of the Indiana House of Representatives, author of 15 books, frequent guest on television and radio talk shows, and wrote columns for USA Today for 8 years.