Scenes of animals rummaging through garbage in our urban areas are increasingly becoming common.
A drive on the Northern Bypass between Githurai and Ruaka reveals that it has become a dumping site in the absence of proper sanitation for informal settlers. Rats, pigs and goats share the filth in broad daylight. Unknown to Africa is the long-term effect of ignoring hygiene.
This is perhaps why the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque urged, the government to transform the constitutional rights to water and sanitation into a reality for the millions of Kenyans who do not enjoy these fundamental human rights.
Albuquerque said Kenya loses Sh29 billion due to premature deaths and expenditure on healthcare. She said 13 per cent of the population defecate in the open, and in Turkana over 80 per cent of the population practise open defecation.
She emphasised that “this is not only an absolute denial of the right to sanitation, but also a serious threat to public health and the security of women and girls who have to walk into the bush at night. These women and girls are exposed to daily risks due to the lack of proper sanitation”.
Strangely, we never relate these hygiene issues to the increasing outbreaks of deadly viral diseases like Ebola. In the 14th century, Europe suffered many viral disease outbreaks (different forms of plague) leading to one of the most devastating pandemics in human history that came to be known as Black Death after it decimated nearly 200 million people.
It wasn’t until the 19th century when the importance of hygiene was recognised. Until then, it was common, as Wikimedia reports, to find filthy streets with live animals roaming and human parasites abounding.
A transmissible disease spreads easily in such conditions. This was validated by BBC’s Dan Snow in Medieval London. The filth led to much disease, and there was no understanding on how disease spread.
Fed up with recurring epidemics, the Europeans decided to change course and as Snow reports, “through the plague people became much more community-minded and focused on cleaning up the city. Interestingly, the muck and grime of the city helped form the nature of the city today. Londoners learnt that they needed to work together to create a metropolis that was not only wealthy, but liveable”.
The difference between 14th century Europe and Africa today is the outwardly lack of acceptance of our collective will to deal with filth in our urban centres. This could be the cause of the many diseases that we experience today.
It is not due to lack of money or labour that we are choking in garbage. Most cities are able to collect land rates and use the resource to keep their cities clean. Even without revenue collection, there are sufficient devolved funds in Constituency Development Fund or other county devolved funds.
We have more than enough human resources to ensure clean cities. What we perhaps need most is the collective will of the people to change their attitude and culture towards cleanliness.
To improve our situation we need to start campaigns against careless disposal of waste and imaginably develop a cleanliness index tied to some reward; step up efforts to inform, educate and communicate benefits of effective sanitation to minimise the problem while we seek to innovatively create new eco-friendly disposal products; willing to learn from startups like Sanergy (sanitation experts turning waste into value in Mukuru slums), innovations around waste management; and scale up Kibra pilot projects on converting waste into energy.
Like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme, we must see the opportunity in developing innovative approaches and technologies that can lead to radical and sustainable improvements in sanitation.
In the foundation’s words, “improving how we deal with human waste, we can save lives, improve child health, and ensure greater dignity, privacy, and personal safety, particularly for women and girls.
“Better sanitation also contributes to economic development, delivering up to $5 in social and economic benefits for every $1 invested through increased productivity, reduced healthcare costs, and prevention of illness, disability, and early death.”
As Barry Commoner said, “Environmental pollution is an incurable disease. It can only be prevented”.
The writer is a Senior Lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.