Inside Ibadan slums where water scarcity, open defecation thwart efforts at ending COVID-19 pandemic

According to statistics, about 47 million Nigerians practise open defecation and, no fewer than 60 million lack access to safe water. Yet, the World Health Organisation recommends constant washing of hands with soap and running water for at least 30 seconds as the first line of defence against coronavirus. JUSTICE NWAFOR visited urban slums in Ibadan to see what life is like for the residents without clean water and toilets, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.


Ibadan, Nigeria’s third most populous city, wears rusted zinc-roof like a royal hat. Weak bricks, cracked and patchy walls are strewn all about the outskirts of the city.  The waft of open sewage soaks the air.

In places like Gege-Olopa, one of the city’s unstructured settlements, swarms of heads huddle into tiny spaces, children flirt in sandy fields, while tiny lights flicker to the hazy wind. It is no spectacle for 120-year-old Muraino Olukotun. He was born here.

He had watched, without envy, the lives of other kids around him. Ordinarily, they shared the same age but the gulf of poverty kept their company apart. So, he remembers his childhood for what he did not have: such things as toilets and clean water.

While urbanisation has changed some things like the broken tarred road metres away from his home, others remained, he tells Nigerian Tribune. “Most of the households here do not have toilets and it is usual. There are no free public toilets too,” says Olukotun, who sat on a brown wooden bench and flanked to the left by Raliatu Olukotun, his late brother’s wife.

Olukotun doesn’t suffer alone but alongside Gege-Olopa’s about 1,000 other residents who are just a fraction of the 47 million people a national survey by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) found practise open defecation in Nigeria.

Titilope Adebayo, 19, loves to spend time with her grandmother and siblings. She sits in her dimly lit room in Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria’s southwest, and thinks of embarking on the 78-kilometre journey to Korukoru in Ibadan. But she wouldn’t stop seeing flashy images of herself lying weak on a six-spring-bed in a local healthcare facility being tended to by the same granny she had gone to visit in January.

Tears drop on her glossy, ebony-black cheeks and streamed down to the edges of her mouth, while its saltiness settles on her young tongue. She misses her granny and siblings and friends in the village. But to see them, she would have to risk her health again.

A resident of Korukoru points to the community’s main source of water.

It’s a choice between two extremes. So, she had to choose one, which eventually was to travel. After all, she had made the choice more than 10 times in the past.

“I vomit and stool constantly whenever I come here to see my grandmother and siblings”, Titilope said, standing beside her granny, when Nigerian Tribune visited Korukoru in June.

It took her less than a week on arrival earlier in the month to start vomiting and stooling again. Although it’s a road well known to her, this time the symptoms were severe. Deborah Olunike, her granny, had to dip into the lean profit she made from her oil palm processing business to ensure she got medical attention.

Titilope’s ordeal is only a peep into the suffering of Korukoru residents whose main source of drinking, cooking and bathing water is a dirty, stagnant body of water tucked down a slight hill and surrounded by the bush where they defecate.

Residents of this community do not suffer alone but alongside about 60 million (more than the entire population of South Africa) of Nigeria’s 200 million people who do not have access to safe water, a WHO report found.

As grim as the figures are, Ajisekola Amos, chairman, Oak Rural Health Organisation— a nonprofit working to provide healthcare services and access to water in rural communities across Oyo State— thinks the figures do not represent what the situation is in most rural communities. He says they are rather low compared to what is obtainable, especially in far-flung communities.

Although Titilope is above five, UNICEF says more than 70,000 children under five die every year in Nigeria from diarrhoea, which has symptoms related to the ones she exhibits whenever she travels to the community, because of unsafe water. And Dr. Muktar Gadanya, a Consultant and Associate Professor of Community Medicine at Bayero University, Kano, says diarrhoea is not the only disease people who drink contaminated water like the one in Korukoru could suffer from. Another, Dr Gadanya says, is typhoid, which between 128,000 and 161,000 people globally die from every year.

For instance, Olunike, 65 – Titilope’s granny – is old and cannot trek about two kilometres to fetch water from the community’s source. Even though some of her grandchildren help her out, the high volume of water required for her oil palm processing venture needs extra hands to get. So, she sometimes relies on other youths of the community who she pays to get her the water.

“I pay some youths N1, 000 ($2.6) for every 100-litre of water they fetch for me”, she tells Nigerian Tribune. Olunike says she uses about 300 litres of water to process 40 bunches of palm fruit of which she makes a profit of about N8, 000 ($20.8). But the cost for water takes almost a half of this lean profit. And when Titilope and others fall ill, she borrows to add to the little she has saved up to pay healthcare bills, leaving her in debt and unable to meet other needs.

In this complex, a more worrisome problem lies for Nigeria.


Long-term impact: Stunted development

Pa Olukotun in Gege-Olopa
Pa Olukotun in Gege-Olopa

Brain development in humans needs a lot of iron, that is why pregnant women are given iron-boosting tablets during antenatal care, Dr Gadanya says. Necatoramericanus, a causal agent of intestinal hookworm, feeds on this too.

Necatoramericanus is passed when human beings defecate and it finds its way into the human body when the faeces are washed into a body of water which humans eventually drink, like in Korukoru. It also gets into human bodies through the feet when people are exposed to environments where open defecation is rife like in Gege-Olopa, Ayeye and Foko.

“If a child or anybody is infected with the worm, it depletes the iron level of the blood which is needed for development”, Dr Gadanya says. “It leads to physical and cognitive stunting. For kids, pregnant women, people in the workforce, when they get infected by iron-depleting parasites, it affects their physical and cognitive functions. That’s why some children may not learn quickly.

“Not only Necatoramericanus, Shigella which causes diarrhoea and salmonella which causes typhoid reduce appetite, and when appetite is not good for several days in a year, one is likely going to be stunted (because) the brain feeds on the food we eat.”


 Public emergency


In 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari declared a state of emergency in water and sanitation and promised to vigorously pursue the action plan launched in 2016 to end open defecation by 2025. Also, last year, the government launched the Clean Nigeria: Use the Toilet campaign aimed at meeting the 2025 target but had to wait till last month to inaugurate the steering committee for its implementation.

But Temple Oraeke, Nigeria’s Country Director, Hope Spring Water Charity Foundation, thinks the government at various state levels have not shown enough commitment to the cause, given that only about 15 of the country’s 774 local government areas are free from open defecation as of the first quarter of this year.

“If the state governments are not following up with the efforts of the Federal Government, we will hardly see any progress on the ground,” Oraeke stated.

The COVID-19 challenge

When the first coronavirus case was reported in Nigeria, many reactions trailed it. In the heart of the war against the pandemic is water, one of mankind’s most basic needs, which, unfortunately, is not accessible to many. The WHO recommends that hands should be washed with clean, running water and soap for about 20 seconds and scientists say drinking at least eight glasses of water everyday helps to stay hydrated.

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has taken the campaign to Nigerians through the media. But experts fear the country may have another huge crisis on its hands. WaterAid, a global nonprofit working to ramp up access to water, says the precarious situation of poor access to water has been exacerbated by the current pandemic.

The group, in a recent report, says about 110 million people in Nigeria do not have access to handwashing facilities close at their homes; while due to endemic poverty, purchasing alcohol-based hand sanitisers could be an unimaginable strain.

“Without adequate water, sanitation and hygiene services in homes, healthcare centres and public places to support the practice of good hygiene, Nigeria cannot hope to win the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as confirmed cases reach new heights daily,” WaterAid tells Nigerian Tribune.


‘Faecal wastes get stored in jerry cans’


Tall, dark and brisk, Gideon Agbade’s protruding stomach moves in rhythm with his white flip flops as he walks. For him, the sight of children and adults squatting to defecate into open sewage in Foko, a community in Ibadan’s southwest, is no spectacle. It’s a practice well known to them and he does not see an end in sight soon.

“That yellow jerry can is used to store faeces. What they do is, in daytime, they keep the waste there, at night they go and pour it into the sewage that leads to Ogunpa River,” he tells Nigerian Tribune, while pointing to a yellow jerry can slit open by half in a kiosk-like enclosure with a  blown-off roof.

Gideon says it is unusual for the houses here to have toilet facilities, so much so that children who are born in the settlement grow to practise open defecation as they watch their parents or guardians do.

Foko is not alone in this. Residents of Ayeye, Beere and Gege-Olopa all have unsavoury stories of poor access to water and toilet facilities to tell. While Olukotun sighs in disappointment whenever he remembers that 120 years after his birth, Gege-Olopa is yet to be transformed into a settlement where access to water and toilet would be no luxury, Adedeji Olatunji in Ayeye regrets his five children have seen open defecation as a way of life, and fears they may find it difficult to adapt to life outside the community.

There are concerns that the situation may get worse as more people move from other parts of Nigeria to Ibadan in search of a better life alongside the fertility rate of 4.9 births per woman in the state, as of 2016, according to a National Bureau of Statistics 2016 report. Another cause for worry is the annual growth rate of the city which data from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ (UNDESA) report on world urbanisation prospects says is at 4.6 per cent between 2010 and 2020.

As the population keeps growing, the city’s density of approximately 2,889 people per square kilometer – one of Nigeria’s highest – is bound to get worse and more people join the estimated 70 per cent of households which live in slum conditions in the city.


Unsafe public toilets

A household in Ayeye
A household in Ayeye

The Oyo State government clearly understands the enormity of the problem. To commemorate the 2019 World Toilet Day, the state government announced that it was putting in measures to end the twin problems by “providing mobile toilets and water in rural communities”.  But in all the settlements and Korukoru community Nigerian Tribune visited, there were no mobile toilets recently built by the government. Where the toilets exist, they are decrepit and unsafe.

For instance, there is a facility of three public toilets in Oke-Ado meant to serve some parts of Foko, too. It was constructed by the Ibadan Southwest Local Government Area but Kazeem Tijani, who takes care of the facility, complains of low patronage.

Users are required to pay N50 ($0.00266) to make use of it each time. “But people are not coming,” he said when Nigerian Tribune visited the facility. The single block of three toilets looked horrible with flies buzzing all around.

In Gege-Olopa, such a facility exists, too, but the condition is worse. The same complaint of poor usage by residents of the settlement was reechoed when Timothy Ajayi, the caretaker of the facility, was asked how much he makes daily.

“Sometimes, in a full day not even a person would come to use it,” he says.

Aisha Babatunde, who operates a kiosk opposite the facility, says most people prefer to defecate into the sewage because they are unable to pay a fee of N50.

“Do you expect people to pay N50 each time they use the toilet? Sometimes one may need to defecate up to three times in a day. Do you expect the person to spend N150 just to defecate in a dirty toilet? How much do I earn in a day?” She asked.

The state Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources was contacted to provide clarifications on the current efforts of the state in dealing with the problem. The ministry’s information officer referred Nigerian Tribune to the Department of Environmental Health Services. The director of the department declined comment and referred Nigerian Tribune to the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary who promised to get back with a response but never did. The ministry’s commissioner died mid-last month.

  • This report was supported by PAGED Initiative



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