A number of Nigerian officials have since 2019 claimed that Nigeria has overtaken India in having the most people who defecate in the open.
While India has made impressive gains in sanitation and the problem is widespread in Nigeria, United Nations data from 2020 showed 205 million people were practising open defecation, compared to an estimate of 38.4 million people in Nigeria.
Most recent survey data by Nigerian authorities put the number at 46 or 47 million people – very concerning, but far behind the numbers in India. Public health experts have urged a community-based approach.
Emmanuel Awe, the director of water quality control and sanitation, reportedly said Nigeria had more people defecating in the open than any other country in the world.
Awe also put the cost of poor sanitation to the country at at least N455 billion (US$1.1 billion).
But is Nigeria’s sanitation problem worse than all other countries?
2020 survey puts Nigeria 2nd after India
The survey was first done in 2018 and will be conducted annually until 2025.
The most recent edition of the survey was published in November 2020. It covered 24,600 households nationally and was conducted by among others Nigeria’s national statistics agency and the United Nations children’s fund, Unicef.
The survey found that 47 million people relieved themselves in the open, “making Nigeria the second country with the largest number of people practising open defecation globally”. (Note: Elsewhere the report gives this as 46 million people.)
Nigeria’s most recent population estimate is 211.4 million, according to the United Nations (UN) Population Fund.
The survey however did not include a ranking. We have not been able to reach Awe to clarify this or if he meant Nigeria had the highest global share of people practising open defecation. The ministry has however made the same claim in recent months.
Hygienic sanitation proxy for progress, says WHO
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes open defecation as when human faeces are disposed of in fields, forests, bushes, open bodies of water, beaches and other open spaces.
It says that those using unimproved sanitation facilities like pit latrines without slabs, open pit, or hanging latrines are not counted as practising open defecation.
The WHO says access to proper sanitation is a human right and not a privilege. It notes that hygienic sanitation – the provision of facilities and services for the safe disposal of human urine and faeces – is a proxy for progress in the fight against poverty, disease and death.
UN says India still tops number of people defecating in public
But Unicef data also shows that as of 2020, some 14.9% of India’s 1.38 billion population, or 205 million people, were practising open defecation.
By this measure India therefore still leads the world in this metric. But there’s little doubt the Asian country has made significant leaps. In 2015 India accounted for nearly half of the 1.2 billion people who defecated in the open, or 568 million people. By June 2019 this number had fallen by 450 million, with Unicef calling this a “tremendous achievement”.
Poverty major factor for open defecation, serious pollutant
Nigeria and its international partners such as Unicef have set a target to end open defecation by 2025. But as of June 2021, only 61 of the country’s 774 local councils were free of the problem, the federal government said.
Part of the effort to improve sanitation access included investing in infrastructure and hiring more than 77,000 youth volunteers as “hygiene ambassadors”.
Experts say meeting this target requires a collaborative effort.
David Olukanni is a professor of water resources and environmental engineering at Covenant University in Ogun state, southern Nigeria, and whose research interests include rural-urban sanitation and hygiene.
He told Africa Check that poverty was a major factor for the practice, which polluted the environment at three levels: the soil, air and water.
“How many people in the rural communities can afford to build a decent house and also include toilets? There is also the issue of availability of water in the communities because they will have to clean up after using the facility,” he said.
In addition to providing more sanitation facilities, the public should be educated on the health consequences of defecating openly, Olukanni said.
Exposure to faecal matter has severe health consequences
Oladele Akogun, a professor of public health parasitology at the Modibbo Adama University of Technology in Adamawa, northern Nigeria, said people believed the waste matter would be washed away or decay but did not link it to actual health consequences.
He told Africa Check that disposed faecal matter was washed into rivers, wells and other water sources. Open defecation caused many diseases, with diarrhoea being one of the most common, he said.
The UN says that exposure to faecal matter remains “a leading cause of child mortality, morbidity, undernutrition and stunting, and can negatively impact a child's cognitive development”.
It also is a safety risk, especially for women, the agency says. “When forced to travel greater distances from home to reach adequate hygiene facilities, girls and women are put at greater risk of violence.”
Akogun called for a community-based approach.
“It doesn't require a huge budget. In each rural area, the village chief, teacher and community health worker can come together and make a rule that no human faecal deposit should be seen in the open.”
Akogun said two households could also come together and build a common latrine as having a flush latrine in some communities might not be sustainable as the equipment breaking could lead to open defecation starting again.
Conclusion: India still has most people defecating openly but Nigeria also struggles
A top official said Nigeria has the highest number of people in the world who practise open defecation.
The most recent available data does not support this claim, with India still having more people who defecate openly. We therefore rate the claim incorrect.
But analysts say this is no cause for celebration, as the public health burden in Nigeria due to this practice remains a major concern.