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Sanitation the key to healthy communities in Niger Delta

October 17, 2017
By: 
Stephanie Harrington
Nancy Gilbert & colleagues with Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta

It doesn’t make for easy dinner conversation, but Dr. Nancy Gilbert is a passionate advocate for a critical and often overlooked area of health and development—sanitation.

The Doctor of Social Sciences graduate spent three years researching sanitation in one of the world’s poorest regions, the Niger Delta, in West Africa, where an estimate 100 million of Nigeria’s 170 million people lack access to adequate sanitation.

“We take sanitation for granted here,” Gilbert says. “The kinds of problems the world faces because of poor water sanitation and hygiene are enormous.”

Poor sanitations leads to numerous challenges, from the spread of infectious diseases to environmental degradation. But what do we mean when we talk about proper sanitation?

Gilbert says adequate sanitation includes access to safe drinking water, as well as toilet and handwashing facilities. It’s a foundational issue, she says, that improves people’s overall health, attendance at school and work, and addresses malnutrition, as bacteria and disease wreak havoc on the digestive tract.

“People want to drink clean water. They don’t like getting sick,” Gilbert says. “If you address that basic need you’ll be more affective at addressing other kinds of issues.”

Poor sanitation can be particularly devastating to children. A World Health Organization report found 1.87 million children under the age of five died in 2004 due to diarrhoeal disease, accounting for more than 20 per cent of deaths in children under five in sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia.

Gilbert, 62, had a long career as a lawyer before Rotary International turned her attention to the issue. She got involved with international water sanitation and hygiene projects and, after some self-education, was hired to work with a non-government organization in Nigeria called the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND).

“I really discovered this was my passion,” Gilbert says. “I wanted an excuse to dig into this issue from a more academic and disciplined place.”

Royal Roads’ doctoral program was a perfect fit: Gilbert could work with the Nigerian organization while working towards her degree.

Gilbert, who was awarded a $90,000 Mitacs Accelerate fellowship in 2013 to support her research, initially planned to study how to upgrade sanitation and develop better tools and approaches, with Victoria’s FanTan Group serving as a local partner organization.

But it became apparent to Gilbert there was a dearth of research on sanitation, making it difficult to know how to successfully implement a project. She decided to conduct an exploratory case study so she could understand the lay of the land and where to go to next.

Gilbert began to evaluate the landscape. What kind of sanitation projects had been tried in the Niger Delta? What hadn’t? She investigated best practices around sanitation, as well as behavioural attitudes in the Niger Delta towards sanitation and hygiene. She interviewed local people for their perspective, and researched every kind of toilet, from biodigestors to flush handles. She learned an estimated 50 million people still practice open defecation in Nigeria.

“The whole objective of this research was to gain insight into how to make real change and how to improve the sanitation situation, which is very bad,” she says.

Gilbert came up with recommendations that will form the foundation of future work on this issue. She discovered, in a region which gets 2400 to more than 4000 millimetres of rain annually (Vancouver, in comparison, receives around 1,500 millimetres), the expensive flush toilet that requires a septic tank is not feasible.

“One of the key findings is there actually are no options for sanitation that are going to work in that environment,” she says. “Lots of villages only have boat access, there’s poverty. Most toilets empty into the river.”

Gilbert calls this her “ah-ha moment”.  Since completing the exploratory study, she has been working with non-government groups, governments and communities to develop safe, locally made and environmentally suitable toilets for the Niger Delta.

Now the executive director of the non-government organization Transform international, which focuses on water sanitation, Gilbert is working with university students in the U.S. to develop a low-cost, durable toilet suitable to the Niger Delta.

When she started her doctorate, Gilbert wanted to make sure her research wouldn’t languish in a library.

“You never want research to be sitting on a shelf. That’s one of the things about Royal Roads—we’re encouraged to do research that will have an impact,” she says.

“I’m hopeful my research in the Niger Delta will have a positive effect on the people living there.”

This profile was developed with the assistance of the Research Support Fund and will be included in the forthcoming 2018 Research in Action publication featuring Royal Roads University faculty and student research.