There were loud speakers and whistles and placards and people processing with fervor around the village. We had just arrived in Pulha, a community perched on the top of a mountain at the remotest end of Kalikot district.
“What’s going on?” I asked, confused by all the commotion. I had just trekked for two days, driven for one, and taken a flight from Kathmandu to arrive slap bang in the middle of this mêlée. I was too tired to take cover from the inevitable protest and fighting.
My colleague Thomas looked on. There seemed more pride in his gaze than fear.
“Isn’t it wonderful”, he said, watching the people shouting their slogans in incomprehensible Nepali. “Today they are declaring this village to be a No Open Defecation zone”.
A No Open what? He didn’t just say “defecation”? Was he literally shitting me?
He took my puzzled silence as an obvious sign that a certain amount of explanation was required.
“When we got here less than a year ago there were no toilets at all for people to go in. Instead, they would defecate anywhere and everywhere”.
We had already passed through villages whilst on our way to Pulha where open defecation was evident. I saw human feaces on the roadside, children squatting and letting it rip. I’d been told not to touch rivers where every possible type of sanitary disease was lurking in the waters. Nowhere was off limits for turds.
“We’ve managed to help the community build squat toilets for every household”, Thomas said. “And what with the toilets in place, they can now declare their village a No Open Defecation zone”.
And they were certainly making a big deal of the fact that, from today onwards, no one was going to shit in the streets again. And just in case anyone tried to dump a quick one, children had been trained and given whistles to blow if they saw any defaulters. And as if the shame of getting caught wasn’t enough, each offender had to pay a 50 Rupee fine (equivalent of half a Euro).
“What the No Open Defecation declaration will do is help reduce the incidence of disease”, Thomas explained. I had already heard that in a neighbouring district cholera had already broken out for the second year in a row. People then just diarrhea themselves to death, what with inadequate health facilities also on the mountain.
But even with today’s declaration, there was still a long way to go. Flies were still rife, sitting on food, vomiting it up, regurgitating it again, then flying off to sit on the nearest cow and goat dung that also was abundantly spread on the ground.
“We need to get them to also understand the importance of closing up their animals”, Thomas continued. “The animals just wander where they want, causing all this dirt and disease around the village. And if they house the animals together, use the toilets, keep the place clean, then the flies will dissipate on their own”.
Together with the pit latrines, clean water sources were also being provided. In other mountain villages I saw women queuing around single water taps to fill vast copper pots. These same water sources cows and goats then wandered straight into to lick the pipes and drink from the same springs as the humans. I looked at my own water bottle that I had just filled and wondered what bacteria were in there now being creamed my killer iodine tablets.
Life up the top of Nepal’s mid western hills is tough. It’s hot, dusty, and remote. It’s at least 40 kilometers from the nearest road. Everything that is needed has to be carried up there on steep, rocky, thin trails that plunged away from under your feet, meaning that one false step made you an instant goner. The people can’t produce enough rice and wheat to feed themselves so rely on WFP rations.
But it’s also incredibly beautiful up there and people are remarkably hardy. And if providing them with closer and cleaner water taps, by giving them advice about hand washing and animal rearing, and by helping them build a place of their own to pee and poo, then hopefully we can make their lives a little easier.