*Funky commercial tune for a video before cutting into the main topic*
(Seriously, watch the video first)
Fortunately, born and raised as a lower-middle class city gal, that was not something I ever had to face. No matter how old, manually or automatically flushed, I had been lucky enough to never stay in a house without a toilet. Even my grandparents in the province had that old manual toilet where you had to squat (which I learned years later that it was actually better for your intestines, but that’s another matter).
Open defecation was, in my mind, something of the near past. There were stories of how my parents squatted in the bush and used banana leaves as their trustworthy toilet paper, well, in this case, toilet leaves. I linked open defecation to barbaric war-times necessities which should not exist in our peaceful time of the present. And boy, was I wrong.
That whole assumption changed, when I had to live with a host family for a few days before our journey into the Prey Lang Forest in Kratie Province in 2015. Not a single one of the dozen of houses in the village had a working bathroom, or a toilet for that matter. We had to bathe in the river, and defecate anywhere we saw fit.
I’ve learned a lot during my stay there; perhaps the most memorable one is to never poop in the place where many others also like to poop. I also learned that instead of being a past necessity driven by war time desperation, open defecation is still a reality for some Cambodians.
Further research breaks that delusional assumption because according to the World Bank, as of 2015, open defecation is still a reality for more than half Cambodians as only 42% of the total population had access to sanitary latrines.
That is 8.67 million people who have to rely on the old fashioned squatting bush-leaves style and risk poop mines in the dead of the night to relieve themselves!
Hopefully that shall not be how things will stay and we are expecting the numbers of latrines to grow because according to the Phnom Penh Post, the government has a goal to bring the number of people without latrines to 40% by 2018, and to 0% by 2025!
And that’s a wise choice because open defecation, well, the lack of hygiene in general, is an important cause for diarrhoea, which results in the deaths of more than 750,000 children under the age 5 every year worldwide.
According to a report from World Health Organization, in 2013, an estimated 14% of the deaths of Cambodian children aged under 5 is due to diarrhoea-related diseases. That’s about 2,000 children who could have lived and grown up to be a limitless possibility of personnels had they had access to clean water and simple latrines!
As if killing children (and sending their parents into fright) is not evil enough, diarrhoea, and poor hygiene in generally is also linked to growth stunt!
Though not directly deadly, stunted growth has been found by the WHO to cause a greater risk for premature death, delayed mental development, reduced cognitive capacity, and what’s more? It can even be passed on to the next generation.
You may think children who are victims of stunted growth are so because they lack the necessary nutrients to grow healthily.
That is the case, but not the whole case.
Apparently, a review article found that the lack of WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) also plays an important part in the development of stunting (oh, the irony). Children who lacks access to WASH face more frequent bouts of diarrhoea, parasitic worms, and environmental enteric dysfunction (short as EED which is a disease that causes chronic inflammation, reduced nutrient absorption of the intestine and also weakens the function of the small intestine).
Appropriating that to the Cambodian context, it has been found that, in as late as 2010, 40% of children under 5 were suffering from stunted growth! That’s 600,000 children that might grow up to have delayed mental development and reduced thinking capacity just because of malnourishment and lack of WASH! One wonders just how many of the irrational people one sees on the street and online everyday, struggling to form an appropriate justification for their environmentally-and-socially destructive behaviour might just be an unfortunate result of such simple causes.
It is now time, ladies and gents, to keep our eyes glued to the very simple yet largely ignored cause of supplying each household with a suitable latrine, not only for the sake of relieving all mothers of the bride an embarrassingly shitty moment (puns intended), but to also relieve children of the future unnecessary deaths, and needless stunting of their very-well-deserved growth!