My hope had been that Ghana would be able to mark World Toilet Day (WTD), November 19, in an authoritative way, with figures showing phenomenal sanitation gains.
This year, the UN family marked WTD under the theme, ‘Valuing Toilets’. Ghana’s local theme was ‘Stop open defecation, own a household toilet now, let's play our part in a COVID-19 era’.
I had wished that as the highlight of the commemoration, this country would be able to release impressive statistics about household toilets built or provided nationwide, to show how seriously we take the challenge of valuing toilets, as well as achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6, ‘Water and sanitation for all by 2030’.
A suggestion I made in this column three years ago is still relevant, I believe.
It was: Why can’t we have a ‘Toilet Task Force’ in every district or community?
I proposed that idea because from all indications it will take a very radical approach to take Ghana off the list of shame, the register of countries with the most deplorable toilet statistics.
Ahead of the 2021 event, the UN highlighted some sobering information:
“The (2021) observance celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 3.6 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation.
“When some people in a community do not have safe toilets, everyone’s health is threatened. Poor sanitation contaminates drinking-water sources, rivers, beaches and food crops, spreading deadly diseases among the wider population.”
• Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces.
• Every day, over 700 children under five years old die from diarrhoea linked to unsafe water, sanitation and poor hygiene.
• For every $1 invested in basic sanitation, up to $5 is returned in saved medical costs and increased productivity.
Speaking at the Kumasi commemoration, Minister of Sanitation and Water Resources Cecilia Dapaah pointed noted that “according to the Ghana Statistical Service, 22 per cent of the population practice open defecation, whilst only 21 per cent have access to improved sanitation.”
Ironically, she said from available statistics more people have access to mobile phones than those with access to toilet facilities.
Her ministry, through the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area Sanitation and Water Project, has provided access to improved toilet facilities to serve over 275,968 people in low-income communities, representing 34,496 households in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area (GAMA).
“This has significantly reduced open defecation rates in the region. Under the same project, 406 disability-friendly, fit for purpose, gender sensitive institutional sanitation facilities for 260 beneficiary schools have been provided, benefitting over 232,000 school pupils of low-income communities in the GAMA.”
Moreover, “an additional funding totaling $74 million has been secured to undertake the construction of 30,000 household toilets for the Greater Kumasi Metropolitan Area and 12000 household toilets for the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area,” Ms Dapaah stated.
Well, if Ghana’s two major cities are still battling open defecation issues, little wonder that Ghana is unfortunately prominent in the global league of shame: the countries lacking adequate safe, decent toilets for the majority of their people.
It’s disheartening that every year we hear the same disgraceful statistics and pleas for responsible sanitation behaviour, as illustrated by the following summary of an article previously published in this space.
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It was such a relief to learn that there is a renewed commitment of the Sanitation Ministry to the campaign for every house to have a toilet.
At a durbar in Accra to mark ‘World Toilet Day’, the ministry urged local governments to enforce laws against open defecation.
They are to “ensure the availability of household toilets in their areas of jurisdiction”.
The background to the declaration of the Day was a July 24, 2013, resolution by Singapore, following which the United Nations agreed to observe a ‘World Toilet Day’ every November 19.
Admirably, Singapore’s then UN envoy, Mr Mark Neo, is reported to have stated that he didn’t care if their ‘Sanitation for All’ resolution made people laugh because World Toilet Day highlights “a serious problem: 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have access to proper sanitation.”
Indeed, in the Ghanaian society until recently talking about toilets in public was considered almost a taboo subject, impolite.
Even the word itself could only be mentioned in euphemisms, or, preceded by an apologetic ‘sϵbe’ or ‘taflatse’ (meaning ‘excuse my impolite language’).
The issue is, do local government officials themselves attach importance to ensuring that there is at least one toilet in every home? And do they check to see if schools have toilets?
It should be a criminal offence, punishable by a stiff fine or a term of imprisonment – or both – for any house owner, or even building contractor, to construct a facility for any kind of use, without a toilet.
Besides, what can be more short-sighted and negligent than a school built without toilets?
Among other things, children need to be taught in school basic toilet-use etiquette, alongside what they learn at home.
Where else do we expect them to learn that if their school has no toilet?
Why wouldn’t such children grow up believing that open defecation is acceptable?
There is need not only to talk openly about toilets, but also to take pragmatic, urgent action.
Why can’t we have a ‘Toilet Task Force’ in every district or community?
(Column, November 23, 2018, ‘Lack of toilets, choked gutters: less talk, more action NOW!’)
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And I still stand by the conclusion of my 2018 article: "In my opinion, the world owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Singapore, and Mr Neo, for the courage to put the issue of toilets on the global front burner" through their wise resolution – boldly proposed at the UN General Assembly, disregarding the possibility of their initiative attracting ridicule.
It takes extraordinary vision and determination to come up with such a seemingly simple, but pragmatic, globally critical initiative.