Open defecation

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Open defecation in Pandharpur, a pilgrimage town in India

Open defecation is the practice of people defecating outside and not into a designated toilet. The term is widely used in literature about water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues in developing countries. Open defecation causes public health problems in areas where people defecate in fields, urban parks, rivers, and open trenches in close proximity to the living space of others.

Eliminating open defecation is the main aim of improving access to sanitation worldwide and is a proposed indicator for sustainable development goals. Even if toilets are available, people still need to be convinced to refrain from open defecation and use toilets. Therefore, the need for behavioural change is critical in addition to the provision of toilets. A preference for open defecation may be due to traditional cultural practices or lack of access to toilets, or both.[1]

Extreme poverty and lack of sanitation are statistically linked. Eliminating open defecation is said to be an important part of development efforts.[2] High levels of open defecation in a country are usually correlated with a high child mortality, as well as high levels of undernutrition, high levels of poverty, and large disparities between rich and poor.[3](p11)

About one billion people, or 15 percent of the global population, practice open defecation.[3](page v) India has the highest number of people practicing open defecation, around 490 million people, or nearly a third of the population.[4] Most of it occurs in rural areas, where the prevalence is estimated at 52 percent of the population, as opposed to urban areas, where prevalence is estimated at 7.5 percent.[5] The other countries with the highest number of people openly defecating are Indonesia (54 million), followed by Pakistan (41 million),[6][7][8] Nigeria (39 million), Ethiopia (34 million), and Sudan (17 million).[3]


Indiscriminate waste dumping and open defecation, Shadda, Cap-Haitien, Haiti
Open defecation, Tirin Kowt bazaar, Afghanistan
Open defecation along a river bank in Bujumbura, Burundi
Child defecating in a canal in the slum of Gege in the city of Ibadan, Nigeria
This drain is used to defecate and urinate in a community in Bangladesh
Open defecation and waste dumping area in Palijat in Gujarat state, India
A dirty pit latrine in Mongolia leading people to choose open defecation instead

Whilst open defecation causes little harm when done in sparsely populated areas, forests, or camping type situations, it becomes a significant public health issue—and an issue of human dignity—when it occurs in more densely populated areas.

Open defecation perpetuates the vicious cycle of disease and poverty and is widely regarded as an affront to personal dignity.[3] The countries where open defecation is most widely practised have the highest numbers of deaths of children under the age of five, as well as high levels of undernutrition, high levels of poverty, and large disparities between the rich and poor.[3]


There can be many reasons why a person openly defecates, and these may include:

  • No toilet available
  • A toilet is available but is of "low quality", such as:
    • Toilets are filthy, dark, foul-smelling, or unattractive (often this is the case for shared or public toilets)
    • There is a risk to personal safety (e.g., if the toilets are public or shared, and criminals are known to gather there to wait for possible victims)
    • Toilets are only at some distance; also, it may be dangerous to get there at night
    • Diarrhea may mean there is not enough time to go to a distant shared toilet (or result of an Irritable Bowel Syndrome emergency when no public toilets are available)
    • Toilet is dilapidated, and the user may fear a collapse or danger to children
    • Toilet enclosure does not provide enough privacy
  • Ignorance about the benefits of using toilets[9]

Reasons for people owning a household toilet but still openly defecating may include:[10]

  • The toilet was provided (e.g., by an NGO or government program) and not wanted by the recipients
  • The toilet building can be put to other uses such as a storage room
  • To delay the toilet pit filling up, in the case of a pit latrine
  • No toilet available at the workplace (e.g., during farming activities or at school)
  • Open defecation is embedded as a routine or social norm, or there are social taboos (e.g., father-in-law not using the same toilet as daughter-in-law)
  • Cultural or habitual preference for going to the toilet "in the open air", using a local river or stream, or even the bush, may feel better than using a hole in the ground that smells or has flies and lacks light[2]

Therefore, the reasons for open defecation are varied, and this activity can indeed be a voluntary or semi-voluntary choice, but in most cases it is due to the fact that the alternatives (i.e., toilets) are not available or not clean, safe, and attractive.

Use of the term[edit]

The term "open defecation" became widely used in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector from about 2008 when the publications of the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP) and the UN International Year of Sanitation created more awareness. The JMP is a joint program by WHO and UNICEF to monitor the water and sanitation targets for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—the predecessor of the Sustainable Development Goals from 2016 onwards. For monitoring purposes, two categories were created: improved sanitation and unimproved sanitation. Open defecation falls into the latter category. This means that people practicing open defecation are counted having no access to improved sanitation.

In 2013 World Toilet Day was celebrated as an official UN day for the first time and the term "open defecation" was used in high-level speeches, helping to draw attention to this issue (for example, in the "call to action" on sanitation issued by the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations in March 2013).[11]

Open defecation free[edit]

"Open defecation free" (ODF) is a phrase first used in community-led total sanitation (CLTS) programs and has now entered use in other contexts. The original meaning was simply that all community members are using sanitation systems rather than practising open defecation. Further more stringent criteria have been added in some countries where CLTS programs exist.[10]

The Indian Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has in mid-2015 defined "open defecation free" as "the termination of fecal-oral transmission, defined by no visible feces found in the environment or village and every household as well as public/community institutions using safe technology option for disposal of feces".[12] This definition is part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign).


The prevalence of open defecation as part of voluntary, recreational outdoor activities in remote areas is difficult to estimate, but is also of very little concern from public health, environmental, and human dignity perspectives.[citation needed]

In developing countries however, the situation is entirely different. Here, open defecation is a practice strongly associated with poverty and exclusion particularly when it comes to less remote and less rural areas, such as urban informal settlements.

Data by Joint Monitoring Programme[edit]

The Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP) of UNICEF and WHO has been collecting data regarding open defecation prevalence worldwide. The figures are segregated by rural and urban areas and by wealth quintiles. This program is tasked to monitor progress towards the millennium development goal (MDG) relating to drinking water and sanitation. As open defecation is one example of unimproved sanitation, it is being monitored by JMP for each country and results published on a regular basis.[13] The figures on open defecation used to be lumped together with other figures on unimproved sanitation but are collected separately since 2010.

Over the past 22 years, the number of people practicing open defecation fell by 21 percent, from 1.3 billion in 1990 to one billion in 2012.[3](p6) Those one billion people with no sanitation facility whatsoever continue to defecate in gutters, behind bushes, or in open water bodies, with no dignity or privacy. Most people (9 of 10) who practice open defecation live in rural areas, but the number in urban areas is increasing.[3]

Eighty-two percent of the one billion people practicing open defecation in the world live in just 10 countries. India is the country with the highest number of people practicing open defecation, around 490 million people.[3] This is 47 percent of the population (13 percent of urban dwellers and 70 percent of villagers).

Further countries with a high number of people openly defecating are Indonesia (54 million people), followed by Pakistan (41 million people), Nigeria (39 million) and Ethiopia (34 million).[3](p19)


The health and personal safety impacts due to open defecation are principally the same as those from lack of sanitation.

Health impacts[edit]

Open defecation—and lack of sanitation and hygiene in general—is an important factor in causing various diseases, most notably diarrhea and intestinal worm infections but also typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, polio, trachoma, and others.[14][15] In 2011, infectious diarrhea resulted in about 0.7 million deaths in children under five years old and 250 million lost school days.[14][16] It can also lead to malnutrition and stunted growth in children.

Certain diseases are grouped together under the name of waterborne diseases, which are diseases transmitted via fecal pathogens in water. Open defecation can lead to water pollution when rain flushes feces that are dispersed in the environment into surface water or unprotected wells.

Open defecation was found by the WHO in 2014 to be a leading cause of diarrheal death. An average of 2,000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhea.[17]

Young children are particularly vulnerable to ingesting feces of other people that are lying around after open defecation, because young children crawl on the ground, walk barefoot, and put things in their mouths without washing their hands. Feces of farmed animals are equally a cause of concern when children are playing in the yard.

Those countries where open defecation is most widely practiced have the highest numbers of deaths of children under the age of five, as well as high levels of malnourishment (leading to stunted growth in children), high levels of poverty and large disparities between rich and poor.[3]

Research from India has shown that detrimental health impacts (particularly for early life health) are even more significant from open defecation when the population density is high: "The same amount of open defecation is twice as bad in a place with a high population density average like India versus a low population density average like sub-Saharan Africa."[18]

Safety and gender impacts[edit]

There are also strong gender impacts: the lack of safe, private toilets makes women and girls vulnerable to violence and is an impediment to girls' education. Women are at risk of sexual molestation and rape as they search for places for open defecation that are secluded and private, often during hours of darkness.[19][20]


There are several drivers used to eradicate open defecation, one of which is behaviour change. SaniFOAM (Focus on Opportunity, Ability and Motivation) is a conceptual framework which was developed specifically to address issues of sanitation and hygiene. Using focus, opportunity, ability and motivation as categories of determinants, SaniFOAM model identifies barriers to latrine adoption while simultaneously serving as a tool for designing, monitoring and evaluating sanitation interventions.[21][22] The following are some of the key drivers used to fight against open defecation in addition to behavior change:[2]

  • Political will
  • Sanitation solutions that offer a better value than open defecation
  • Stronger public sector local service delivery systems
  • Creation of the right incentive structures

Integrated initiatives[edit]

Efforts to reduce open defecation are more or less the same as those to achieve the MDG target on access to sanitation. A key aspect is awareness raising (for example via the UN World Toilet Day at a global level), behaviour change campaigns, increasing political will as well as demand for sanitation. Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) campaigns have placed a particular focus on ending open defecation by "triggering" the communities themselves into action.[23]

As India has such a high number of people practicing open defecation, various Indian government-led initiatives are ongoing to reduce open defecation in that country. It began as the "Total Sanitation Campaign", which was relaunched as Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in 2012 and integrated into the wider Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) in 2014.

Also in 2014, UNICEF began a multimedia campaign against open defecation in India, urging citizens to "take their poo to the loo."[24]

Simple sanitation technology options[edit]

Residents in Mymensingh, Bangladesh participate in a workshop to discover more about mobile sanitation options (MoSan) as an alternative to open defecation

There are some simple sanitation technology options available to reduce open defecation prevalence if the open defecation behavior is due to not having toilets in the household and shared toilets being too far or too dangerous to reach, e.g., at night.

Toilet bags[edit]

People might already use plastic bags (also called flying toilets) at night to contain their feces, However, a more advanced solution of the plastic toilet bag has been provided by the Swedish company Peepoople who are producing the "Peepoo bag", a "personal, single-use, self-sanitizing, fully biodegradable toilet that prevents feces from contaminating the immediate area as well as the surrounding ecosystem".[25] This bag is now being used in humanitarian responses, schools, and urban slums in developing countries.[26][27]

Bucket toilets and urine diversion[edit]

Bucket toilets are a simple portable toilet option. They can be upgraded in various ways, one of them being urine diversion which can make them similar to urine-diverting dry toilets. Urine diversion can significantly reduce odors from dry toilets. Examples of using this type of toilet to reduce open defecation are the "MoSan"[28] toilet (used in Kenya) or the urine-diverting dry toilet promoted by SOIL[29] in Haiti.

Society and culture[edit]

Affordable household toilets, Jaipur, Rajasthan


The mainstream media in the countries most affected have recently been picking up on this issue of open defecation, for example, in India[30][31] and Pakistan.[32][33][34]



  • In an attempt to stop city residents from urinating and defecating in public, a city council in western India is planning to pay residents to use public toilets: The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation will give residents one rupee a visit in a bid to draw them into its 300 public toilets and away from open areas and public walls, which often reek of urine.[35]
  • In India, the State of Rajasthan became the first state in the country to make a "functional toilet" mandatory in the house of a contestant for contesting elections to Panchayati Raj institutions. The post of village head is called "sarpanch" in Rajasthan, India. A person cannot contest for the post of sarpanch unless they have a functional toilet at their residence.[36] The Government of India has taken up an initiative called Swachh Bharat Mission wherein a large scale drive has been initiated to construct toilets on mass level. Government has increased subsidy on toilet construction to INR 12000.[37] A number of industries in India, such as Pronto, are manufacturing affordable toilets room using pre-fabrication techniques to meet high demand of toilets created after this new legislation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Clasen; Boisson; Routray; Torondel; et al. (2014). "Effectiveness of a rural sanitation programme on diarrhoea, soil-transmitted helminth infection, and child malnutrition in Odisha, India: a cluster-randomised trial". The Lancet Global Health. 2 (11): e645–e653. ISSN 2214-109X. PMID 25442689. doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(14)70307-9. 
  2. ^ a b c Ahmad,J (30 October 2014). "How to eliminate open defecation by 2030". devex. Retrieved 2 May 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Progress on drinking water and sanitation, 2014 Update. WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP). 2014. ISBN 9789241507240. 
  4. ^ "Table 16 R/U: Percentage of persons in respective age categories going for open defecation". Swachhta Status Report 2016 (PDF). Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India. 2016. pp. 69–70. Retrieved 2 May 2016. 
  5. ^ "Rural population (% of total population)". World Bank. 2016. Retrieved 2 May 2016. 
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ In 2016, Kunwar Bai Yadav, a woman claiming to be 105 years old, said she had never heard about a toilet until that year, and had always gone into the nearby woods to defecate. Only when she learned about them, did she have one built in her community. Source: BBC News (India): "How a 105-year-old ended open defecation in her village, November 1, 2016
  10. ^ a b Cavill; Chambers; Vernon (2015). Sustainability and CLTS: Taking Stock Frontiers of CLTS: Innovations and Insights Issue 4. IDS. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-78118-222-2. 
  11. ^ "United Nations Deputy Secretary-General's Call to Action on Sanitation" (PDF). United Nations. 2013. Retrieved 19 October 2014. 
  12. ^ "Guidelines for ODF Verification" (PDF). Indian Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. 2015. 
  13. ^ "Data and estimates". JMP - WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation. WHO/UNICEF. Retrieved 12 March 2015. 
  14. ^ a b "Call to action on sanitation" (PDF). United Nations. Retrieved 15 August 2014. 
  15. ^ Chaturvedi, Vishnu; Spears, Dean; Ghosh, Arabinda; Cumming, Oliver (2013). "Open Defecation and Childhood Stunting in India: An Ecological Analysis of New Data from 112 Districts". PLoS ONE. 8 (9): e73784. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 3774764Freely accessible. PMID 24066070. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073784. 
  16. ^ Walker, CL; Rudan, I; Liu, L; Nair, H; Theodoratou, E; Bhutta, ZA; O'Brien, KL; Campbell, H; Black, RE (20 Apr 2013). "Global burden of childhood pneumonia and diarrhoea". Lancet. 381 (9875): 1405–16. PMID 23582727. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)60222-6. 
  17. ^ "WHO | Diarrhoeal disease". World Health Organization. 2013. Retrieved 10 March 2014. 
  18. ^ Vyas (2014). Population density and the effect of sanitation on early-life health], slide 19 (presentation at UNC conference in Oct. 2014) (PDF). Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, project (r.i.c.e.). 
  19. ^ Lennon, S. (2011). Fear and anger: Perceptions of risks related to sexual violence against women linked to water and sanitation in Delhi, India - Briefing Note. SHARE (Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity) and WaterAid, UK
  20. ^ House, Sarah, Suzanne Ferron, Marni Sommer and Sue Cavill (2014) Violence, Gender & WASH: A Practitioner’s Toolkit – Making water, sanitation and hygiene safer through improved programming and services. London, UK: WaterAid/SHARE.
  21. ^ Devine, J (2009). Introducing Sanifoam: A Framework to Analyze Sanitation Behaviors to Design Effective Sanitation Programs. Washington, DC, USA: World Bank. 
  22. ^ Devine, J (2010). "Beyond tippt-taps: The role of enabling products in scaling up and sustaining handwashing". Waterlines. 29: 304–314. doi:10.3362/1756-3488.2010.033. 
  23. ^ "Field Notes: UNICEF Policy and Programming in Practice" (PDF). UNICEF. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  24. ^ "Why take poo to the loo". Poo2Loo. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  25. ^ Wheaton, A. (2009). Results of a medium-scale trial of single-use, self-sanitising toilet bags in poor urban settlements in Bangladesh. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GTZ), Dhaka, Bangladesh
  26. ^ Owako, E. (2012). Nyando peepoo trial project report. Kenya Red Cross, Kenya
  27. ^ Naeem, K., Berndtsson, M. (2011). Peepoo Try Pakistan - Sindh Floods, November 2011. UN-HABITAT, Pakistan
  28. ^ Mijthab M., Woods E., Lokey H., Foote A., Rieck. C (2013). Sanivation and MoSan Toilet - 4 week Service Pilot in Karagita Naivasha, Kenya. GIZ and Sanivation
  29. ^ Russel, K. (2013). Mobile sanitation services for dense urban slums - Various documents on results from research grant. Stanford University, U.S.
  30. ^ "BBC News - Why India's sanitation crisis needs more than toilets". Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  31. ^ "India has highest number of people practicing open defecation &#124". 19 November 2014. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  32. ^ "More than 40m Pakistanis defecate openly: Unicef - Pakistan". Dawn.Com. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  33. ^ "Lack of toilets tied to stunted growth in Pakistan: UNICEF – The Express Tribune". 13 March 2012. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  34. ^ "Over 43 million people in Pakistan defecate in the open". Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  35. ^ "Indian city to pay residents to use public toilets". Retrieved 9 June 2015. 
  36. ^ Aarti Dhar. "Rajasthan passes bill on eligibility for panchayat polls". The Hindu. 
  37. ^ Staff Reporter (15 April 2015). "Subsidy for toilet construction". The Hindu. 

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