I’ve just had the luxury of sitting down and reading a pile of reports that have been accumulating over the last few months. A group of these relates to the clear links between sanitation and under-nutrition, especially, how the prevalence of open defecation (OD) in India is clearly correlated with stunting in children in that country. The relevant documents, being a report by Dean Spears (How much international variation in child height can sanitation explain) and an article by Robert Chambers and Gregor von Medeazza (Sanitation and stunting in India: undernutrition’s blind spot) are a must-read for all WASH practitioners and child health specialists, and provide ammunition by the bucket load for advocates of better sanitation and hygiene.
One comment in the Chambers/von Medeazza paper, however, stirred up a problem that has been gnawing away at me for a while: “OD is particularly harmful where population density is high”. There is nothing surprising there, we would all agree. So, here is the troubling thought: you might think that the converse applies: perhaps OD is not especially harmful where population density is not particularly high? The situation where someone defecates in a remote field, in a very dry location, and buries the faeces under a desiccating sun is one that has probably occurred to all of us as being not hugely problematic, especially if that person has and uses an effective method of washing his/her hands quickly afterwards.