News article

Poor sanitation: The new cause of malnutrition.

Posted:  Friday, September 12, 2014

Researchers have identified poor sanitation as the biggest cause for malnutrition than lack of food. Worldwide, 162 million kids under 5 years of age are malnourished due to improper sanitation.

In India, the scenario is no different; the malnutrition statistic standing at 65 million. 1/3rd of the affected kids are from affluent families. Clearly just lack of food is not the issue.

Open defecation is a major sanitary concern in India. A staggering 620 million India people reportedly defecate outdoors. Experts have noted a clear relation between stunting and sanitation, just by statistics on open defecation.

Not only does stunting contribute to the deaths of a million children under the age of 5 each year, but those who survive suffer cognitive deficits and are poorer and sicker than children not affected by stunting. They also may face increased risks for adult illnesses like diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.

“India's stunting problem represents the largest loss of human potential in any country. We need to expend more to build toilets and address the problem of poor sanitation”, suggested Mr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, vice president for research and policy at the Public Health Foundation of India. Indeed, mass scale sanitation drives and attitude change can rescue young children from the jaws of malnutrition.

"The cause of many of our diseases is the condition of our lavatories and our bad habit of disposing of excreta anywhere and everywhere," Gandhi wrote in 1925.

Constructing and maintaining tens of millions of toilets in India would cost untold billions, a price many voters see no need to pay — a recent survey found that many people prefer going to the bathroom outside.

"We need a cultural revolution in this country to completely change people's attitudes toward sanitation and hygiene," said Jairam Ramesh, an economist and former sanitation minister.

India spends about $26 billion annually on food and jobs programs, and less than $400 million on improving sanitation — a ratio of more than 60-to-1.

"We need to reverse that ratio entirely," Laxminarayan said.

Just building more toilets, however, may not be enough to save India's children.

No Indian city has a comprehensive waste treatment system, and most Indian rivers are open sewers as a result. But Varanasi, India's oldest and holiest city, is so awash in human waste that its decrepit condition became a national issue in recent elections. The city's sewage plants can handle only about 20 per cent of the sewage generated in the city, said Ramesh Chopra of Ganga Seva Abhiyanam, a trust for cleaning the river. The rest sloshes into the Ganga or fetid ponds and pits.

"India's problems are bigger than just open defecation and a lack of toilets," said Laxminarayan.