Can Nepal remain open-defecation free?

Declaring Nepal open defecation-free is easy. The real challenge is keeping it so.

The government declared Nepal an open defecation-free country on September 30. It had previously aimed to free the nation from open defecation in 2017 at the fifth South Asian Conference on Sanitation. It is always good to hear that the country is making progress in the social sector, even though belatedly.


However, it will be a considerable challenge to keep Nepal open defecation-free in the long run. Water scarcity, lack of public toilets, disasters and sewage management hindrances will become a big deal in the forthcoming days, making it difficult to maintain the open defecation-free status. Water scarcity will be one of the impeding factors once the goal is achieved. Unicef Nepal reports that 3.5 million people do not have access to essential water services, and hardly 25 percent of the water supply scheme is functional. Moreover, 40 percent of the supply scheme requires maintenance. Water is a fundamental commodity for latrines; 10-20 litres of water is needed to flush down some urine down the toilet. There are many villages in Nepal which have no supply of piped drinking water, forget water for sanitation.

There is evidence to prove that people spend around 8-9 hours a day fetching drinking water for their houses. In such places, water to flush toilets has to be obtained by expending much human energy and time. Who would expect people in such areas to maintain good hygiene? People will soon begin to abandon the toilets if they can't keep them clean. Besides, increased water scarcity is going to exacerbate the condition. Nepal's water-stressed situation is growing at an alarming rate. Western Nepal comes under the extremely high water-stressed zone while other parts of the country are in the highly water-stressed zone.

Another challenge will be faecal sludge management. Lavatories are being constructed with a weak sewerage system. Newly growing cities lack sewer lines. I would like to describe the situation in Manahari Bazaar of Manahari Rural Municipality in Makwanpur district, which I observed during a recent visit. The place is a prime market for all the villages in Rakshirang Rural Municipality. Hence urban expansion is rapid. Basic amenities such as drainage, sewer lines and piped water supply are poorly developed.

Faecal sludge management is the technique of managing the sewage at the place; private operators are involved in cleaning septic tanks. This service provides disposal of sewage at easy sites without containment. As a result, sewage is eventually disposed in the open—in depressed lands, water bodies or forest areas. There is no doubt that the example of Manahari will soon be replicated in other places too, since Nepal is urbanising at a rapid pace.

The third challenge is disasters. According to the Nepal Disaster Report 2017, Nepal is among the 20 most disaster-prone countries in the world, and about 80 percent of the population is at risk. The hilly terrains are prone to landslides and the plains to floods. Many people lose their family members, houses and property; and disaster victims have a very low resilience capacity. Disasters like floods and landslides destroy their homes and toilets. Going back to Pratpur, Manahari, Maniklal Chaygeden recounted his bitter experience of a flood sweeping away his house and newly constructed bathroom. He built a place to live by taking a loan, but he is finding it hard to reconstruct a toilet. The disaster also destroyed the water supply infrastructure, leading to increased water scarcity.

Maintaining hygiene in public places is the fourth anticipated problem. The indicator for open defecation-free may have been attained by having a toilet in each house, but public toilets have been totally neglected. Travellers, the urban poor, slum dwellers and street hawkers undoubtedly have no place to answer the call of nature, so their only option is open sites. In order to deal with these issues, the government of Nepal should first establish the required number of public toilets. Water supply in every household should be prioritised to eliminate the situation of compromised availability of water. Disaster preparedness and relief assistance should include aid for toilets, and fund allocation for destroyed water pipelines could be the next task for the Ministry of Water Supply. Faecal sludge management has never been acknowledged in the mainstream sewage management system. Mainstreaming faecal sludge management in sanitation policy and licensing faecal sludge management is sorely needed.

Source: The Kathmandu Post 1st October,2019

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