“No flies in my vegetable garden anymore!”

A PNG community’s journey to overcome open defecation

Fredrick Musoke
A fresh produce market in Mt. Hagen. Fresh produce contaminated with fecal matter can pose health risks if care is not taken to clean the vegetable thoroughly before cooking or eating.
UNICEF/UN0525862
24 September 2021

There is a change in Airin Pami, a village of 78 households located in Western Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea.

“Only a few months back, lots of flies used to be all over my vegetables and the smell of human and pig feces filled the air. I sometimes wanted to run away for a while,” says 68-year-old Nankul Enos, leaning on her spade as she works in her garden.

“Not anymore! Nowadays there are hardly any flies around and the uncomfortable smell has gone,” she adds with a smile.

Jacob Ninit, 44, a subsistence farmer who lives nearby to Nankul, agrees. Like nearly every home in Pami and much of the rural Highlands region, he grows coffee, sweet potatoes, cassava as well as an assortment of vegetables and fruits in addition to raising a pig or two.  Jacob’s household consumes some of the food and sells the surplus in the nearby Mt. Hagen town, some of which ends up as far away as the big cities of Lae and Port Moresby.

“When we first started to work in Pami, nearly half of the households practiced open defecation while the other half had degraded latrine facilities which mainly consisted of open pits in the ground,” said Aruai Kispe, 68, a retired civil servant.

Kispe is also a Community-Led Total Sanitation motivator with CARE International PNG, UNICEF’s implementing partner for the Klinpela Kommuniti Projek (KKP Project). He is one of over 500 motivators trained by UNICEF to mobilize communities to improve their sanitation, including elimination of open defecation.

KKP is a pilot water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) project co-funded by the European Union (EU) to improve access to WASH facilities in schools and health centers in four PNG districts: Hagen Central in Western Highlands, Goroka in Eastern Highlands, Nawaeb in Morobe and Central Bougainville in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.

The project is also empowering 800 pilot communities to eliminate open defecation by building toilets for their homes and consistently using them. UNICEF is working with partners to support government efforts and replicate best practices in other areas of PNG.

Open defecation leads to fecal contamination of communities’ water sources and food produced by households such as vegetables and fruits, some of which are eaten raw.

A woman washing her hands at a hand-washing station beside her new toilet in Pami Village, Hagen Central District.
UNICEF/UN0525861
A woman washing her hands at a hand-washing station beside her new toilet in Pami Village, Hagen Central District.

“Poor sanitation, especially through fecal matter, is a leading cause of waterborne diseases like diarrhoea, a major killer for children under 5 years,” says Nirakar Joshi, UNICEF’s Chief of WASH. He explains that poor sanitation is a major contributor to stunting that affects the growth and development of children.

According to the Papua New Guinea National Nutritional Policy 2016 – 2026, nearly 4 out of 10 children in the country suffer from stunting which contributes to about 20 per cent of deaths in children under age 5. Stunting also leads to long term cognitive defects, poor performance in school or fewer years of completed schooling, and lower adult economic productivity.

UNICEF has been working with the PNG Government and through EU support provided in the last three years to help empower communities to improve their sanitation situation in a sustainable way by building safe toilets for their households.

According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP) – Progress on household drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene 2000 – 2020, 76 per cent of people in PNG either practice open defecation or use unimproved sanitation.

“Elimination of open defecation is a government priority in PNG where many people still do not have access to improved sanitation including basic safe toilets”, stresses Leo Noki, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Mt. Hagen City Authority.

Pami village, however, is one community that is no longer included amongst those still faced with the challenges of open defecation. It was recently certified by the Mt. Hagen City Authority as an open defecation free (ODF) community.

A villager in Pami village in Hagen Central District shows off a pig pen he built to stop his pigs from defecating around his home.
UNICEF/UN0525859
A villager in Pami village in Hagen Central District shows off a pig pen he built to stop his pigs from defecating around his home.

As is the case with other KKP target villages – Pami’s journey to a defecation free status involved three key steps.

First was the initial community entry or visit by a KKP promoter along with a CLTS community motivator/mobilizer to identify community leaders and other influencers to get buy-in to the idea  that there was an open defecation challenge that the community and households needed to collectively address.

This was followed by a community-wide meeting in the village square, also called community triggering, to raise awareness on the dangers of open defecation. Here the community is guided collectively to come up with practical solutions that can lead every household to constructing its own toilet along with a hand-washing station using locally available materials.

Finally, considerable follow-up by both the community motivator and heath promoter ensures that every household completes its toilet and hand-washing station. The emphasis after this step is on promoting behaviour change practices to consistently use the regularly clean the toilets.

UNICEF and partners are implementing the ODF effort in the context of PNG Government’s Healthy Islands Concept that emphasises holistic community/household improvement in health behaviours. This also includes teaching communities’ healthy habits like regular and correct hand-washing steps with soap, keeping a home clean and hygienic as well as beautifying the home environment by planting flowers.

KKP communities are also learning about conserving water at home and recycling it for uses such as cleaning toilets.  According to Kumar Vishnupad Manu, General Manager, Feedback Foundation from India, UNICEF’s technical partner on CLTS, the average household of 5- 6 people need at least 10 litres of water a day for handwashing after using the toilet and to keep the toilet clean. This can be a challenge, especially in the dry season as most communities collect water from creeks and wells that are often a distance from their homes.

Communities and households are also motivated to address open defecation from household animals. This is done through the construction of animal shelters and safe disposal of animal feces to support ODF efforts.

Aruai Kispe, 67, an active community motivator in Pami Village, Hagen Central District, shows the pit where non-biodegradable household garbage is disposed of as part of Community Led Total Sanitation efforts supported by the UNICEF-EU WASH project.
UNICEF/UN0525860
Aruai Kispe, 67, an active community motivator in Pami Village, Hagen Central District, shows the pit where non-biodegradable household garbage is disposed of as part of Community Led Total Sanitation efforts supported by the UNICEF-EU WASH project.

Communities also learn the importance of separating degradable and non-degradable garbage and how to effectively dispose the latter. Household garbage such as cans and plastics are disposed of in a pit while biodegradable waste is used as fertilizer for the garden.