Open Defecation Causes Environmental Damage, Pollution in the Hilly Regions of Sri Lanka

women standing next to a waterfall
Frotoft, Sri Lanka
Open Defecation Causes Environmental Damage, Pollution in the Hilly Regions of Sri Lanka

About two million tourists visit Sri Lanka every year to explore its mountainous regions, breathe the fresh air and bathe in its flowing waters. But, not many know that a certain section of the population is still living in unhygienic conditions, without access to clean air and access to safe drinking water. To find out more, this reporter traveled to the Pussellawa Frotoft area in the upcountry hilly region of Sri Lanka.

Located at an altitude of 5,550 meters above sea level, Frotoft consists of six sub-areas. One of these sub-areas, Poochigoda, is quite impoverished and located about 22 km away from the Nuwara Eliya-Kandy main road. The main occupation of the people here is tea plucking and agriculture. Many people here do not even have access to basics such as slippers, let alone sanitary lavatories.

The surrounding wastewater seeps into the sidewalks of nearby homes. Some villagers carry their children and walk towards the lakes and ponds. The stink that emanates is horrendous and people cover their noses whenever they pass through. Observing this, we asked K. Pradeep Kumar, the principal of the nearby Frotoft Tamil Vidyalaya, about these issues.

man wearing blue shirt
K. Pradeep Kumar / Credit: Thinakaran

Most of the people in this region use outdoor areas such as rivers and fields to fulfill their toilet needs, he said. The children are accustomed to this at home and end up going to these rivers on their commute to and from school.

The principal who noticed this instructed the children to make use of the school’s toilet facilities. When we entered the village with the principal's assistant to learn more, we encountered a man named Ramasamy Balamurali sitting on a staircase in front of some broken buildings. He worked as a laborer (Naattami) and told us that his toilet had collapsed about five or six years ago due to rain. "What are you doing now if you have no toilet facility?" we asked.

Balamurali showed us a vegetable garden nearby and said that there was a river near it. Nearby was hidden area he would end up using to defecate. His wife and two children do the same. We talked with him and headed towards the river.

There, Kandhaiya Kamalhasan, a father of five, was washing his child who had just defecated in the river. This water comes down from Kotmale Oya and Ramboda Falls. When asked why he was defecating in the river like this, he said he had no toilet and no area on his land to set one up.

man and child standing in  a river
With no toilet and no area to set one up, many people resort to defecating in a river / Credit: Thinakaran.

Shanti, another resident, came across the river to pick carrots from the vegetable garden. She explained that  some people do not dig the required  pits needed to construct a toilet. So, instead, they resort to going about their business on these public lands. 

“We engage in vegetable cultivation and we touch the water that is used to irrigate the garden. We eat the same vegetables. Eventually, we end up falling ill constantly due to this issue,” she said.

Iyan Ganapathi is 65 years old and also lives nearby. She says, “We have a toilet. But, in the rainy season, the toilet overflows and [the sewage] even reaches the interior of our home. The smell gets unbearable and there are days where we run outside and stay out for a while. We have opened the toilet to the ground as the pit is full of feces.”

womens foot next to flowing water
In the rainy season, the toilet overflows and [the sewage] even reaches the interior of homes / Credit: Thinakaran.

During our visit, we observed several water pipes with leaks in the vicinity. We asked Ganapathi and confirmed that the pipes transported drinking water. We asked him if the drinking water and the wastewater ends up mixing. “What can we do? We do not know if the water gets contaminated but that's all we have to drink. We are living a hard life because of this situation,” he said.

Engineer Thiruvengateshwaran Sathees disclosed that toilet pits should be 3 feet deep, 8 feet long and 8 feet wide. In addition, they must be covered with a concrete cover. However, many of the pits here were found to simply be covered with sticks, cane bats, and empty bags. When we went near the pits, we saw that they were full of worms and flies, which seemed unhygienic and hazardous. As many residents noted, during the rainy season, the pits overflow and pollute the surrounding environment.

Professor Tilak Bandara, an environmentalist, explained how open defecation and the absence of sanitary latrines impacts the environment. ‘‘Open defecation not only affects land, water and air but also plants and animals. Air pollution also takes place when these odors escape into the atmosphere. People then get affected and suffer when they inhale this. The nature of the soil is also affected when this waste is discharged directly into the ground. People have a misconception that when human feces comes into contact with soil, it equals manure; as a fertilizer. If it is a fertilizer, then it needs to be rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. It has a refining function. It can be used as a fertilizer only after it is treated properly and not deposited directly on the ground. This is the reason a sewage processing plant is used," he explained. 

man wearing glasses sitting at a desk
Professor Tilak Bandara / Credit: Thinakaran.

It is dangerous to mix sewage with water. As such, the risk is many times greater when defecating directly into water. The resulting risk will vary from region to region.

In the upcountry region, the water flows downhill and people downstream are affected. Groundwater pollution is common in flat areas such as Jaffna and Kurunegala. Many latrines built during the colonial period have not been renovated since. In many places, they overflow during the rainy season. This is a threat to the environment.

“Children touch the ground when they are out playing and come into direct access with dirt and unhygienic substances. This tends to also cause dermatitis. This also affects livestock who graze in these surroundings. [To prevent this] people need to be provided with proper toilet facilities,” Tilak said.

"No matter how much civilization has developed, open defecation is still prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and Asian countries due to several factors, including poverty and lack of education. Thus, on the one hand the environment is facing a massive threat and on the other, people are facing health problems," he said. 

Of the approximately 400 families living in this area, only about 150 families had access to proper latrines. The remaining families do not have proper toilet facilities. World Bank statistics show that 12% of the world's population defecates in open areas. It is a sad fact that this situation persists to this day in many parts of the upcountry region in Sri Lanka. Frotoft is not isolated in this case, as there are many other upcountry villages that continue to practice open defecation and lack proper toilet facilities.

Can anyone say that their poverty is not a factor in the use of open defecation? Their level of poverty means that they do not have enough land or the space to erect their latrines. So, who then is responsible for what’s happening to the environment? 

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Thinakaran on February 27, 2022.  It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner Image: The surrounding wastewater seeps into the sidewalks of nearby homes. Some villagers carry their children and walk towards the lakes and ponds to defecate / Credit: Thinakaran. 

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