Toilet Training the Nation: Bringing Sanitation to Rural Indonesia

By webadmin on 09:51 pm Jun 12, 2012
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Anita Rachman

Jeneponto, South Sulawesi. “Welcome — You are entering Jombe village, Turatea sub-district, Jeneponto district, preparing to be a feces-free zone,” reads the yellow banner above the gate to Jombe village in South Sulawesi.

Visitors cannot miss the banner, which paradoxically seems to welcome them while at the same time admitting Jombe is not yet free from public feces — or “mines” as the locals call the droppings.

“We call it that because if you are not careful, you might step on [the feces]. Many people here still defecate in fields, rivers or right on the sidewalks,” Baso Padewakang, the head of Jombe village, told the Jakarta Globe recently.

Located about 90 kilometers from the provincial capital Makassar, Jombe is a small village where officials at the local health office must continuously encourage people to stop defecating publicly. And it’s not just Jombe — neighboring villages also face the same problem. People go to their fields at the back of their houses or to nearby rivers to defecate.

Of the 113 villages in Jeneponto district that are home to more than 85,670 families, only 11 have been declared free of open defecation since 2010. But the local government is working hard to get more villages to adopt better toilet habits.

Authorities are currently eyeing 14 villages, including Jombe and other villages such as North Empoang, Camba-Camba, and Tuju.

The district administration, supported by the USAID Indonesia Urban Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (IUWASH) project, is aiming to get people from these 14 villages to stop defecating in open areas — in other words, all villagers should have a functioning toilet in their homes.

But reaching the target is a challenge “because the problem is with the people’s mindsets,” said Samsuddin Situju, the head of environmental health at Jeneponto Health Office. “[Defecating in the open] is a habit that is passed from generation to generation. People don’t believe they need a toilet at home. This is the kind of perspective that we are trying to change.”


Khasni is a 25-year-old mother of one from North Empoang village. “I was born and raised here and we’ve never had a toilet,” Khasni told the Globe inside her traditional stilt house.

She said almost all the people in the district lived in stilt houses so they could keep their livestock underneath. They build bathrooms separately, usually in front of or to the side of the house. While bathrooms are supposed to be completely enclosed structures, Khasni’s is not. The walls are constructed from bamboo and only reach her waist. When bathing, she wraps a sarong around her body so people passing by do not see her naked. The bathroom is in front of her house.

Khasni said that when she needed to defecate, she usually went out to her field at the back of the house. She said she often defecated on the ground without covering her stool.

“Afterward, I go to the bathroom and clean up. That’s how our family does it,” she said. “Some people already have toilets here. They got assistance from the government. I may consider getting a toilet too, but I will probably wait until the government gives me one.”

With large fields and many waterways, people in Jeneponto — most of whom are farmers — feel that they do not need toilets, Samsuddin said. Low levels of education and poor economic backgrounds also affect people’s awareness of sanitation and health in general.

But data from the district suggests that such practices have to change. Only 66 percent of all households have access to clean water and 56 percent have toilets in their homes.

The situation has led to thousands of cases of preventable water-borne illnesses each year. In 2011, district authorities recorded 6,711 cases of diarrhea, 1,951 cases of dysentery and 2,794 cases of typhus and cholera.

To eliminate the diseases, Samsuddin said the government was engaging in public awareness programs. These include sending health officials to campaign or talk to people so they understand the importance of a toilet. Officials are also targeting schoolchildren with their campaigning, but the challenges are big.

“At home we have a TV satellite dish, but no toilet,” Zulfikar, a student at an Islamic junior high school in North Empoang, told the Globe. “I’d rather have a satellite dish than a toilet.”

Like Zulfikar, others in Jeneponto also choose not to have a toilet in their homes, yet think nothing about spending more to install a satellite dish just so they can get more TV channels.

A national problem

Zainal I Nampira from the Health Ministry’s Water and Basic Sanitation Restructuring Unit, said public defecation was not a problem unique to South Sulawesi. In 2010, he said, 42 million people in the country still defecated in the open. This is an improvement compared to 2007, when 71 million people defecated in public.

“Some would find it unbelievable that decades after independence, there are still people in this country who do not defecate in toilets,” Zainal said. “Open defecating is found in many places.”

Proper sanitation, he continued, was one of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals. By 2015, the government expects to declare the archipelago free of open defecation. Zainal admitted it was hard work, because some people went back to defecating in rivers or fields even after the government built them toilets.

“Two families in Central Kalimantan refused to use a toilet because they did not feel comfortable using it. They insisted on going to the river,” Zainal said. “This is why we need cooperation from all parties, including IUWASH, to raise public awareness about the matter.”

IUWASH has been supporting the program since earlier this year.

It provides technical assistance to local governments in reaching the open defecation-free target. The assistance includes helping the establishment of a Community-Led Total Sanitation project in Jeneponto and training and capacity building. IUWASH also works very closely with PDAM, a state-run water company, to help improve their services.

Budi Raharjo, IUWASH’s regional coordinator for South Sulawesi and eastern Indonesia, said IUWASH staff worked closely with local administrations on training programs. He said they trained people on how to publicize their campaigns and raise public awareness.

They also encourage people to help each other install toilets in their homes. Currently, IUWASH is training people to build walls for their septic tanks.

The campaign

Jeneponto health official Samsuddin said the success of the CLTS program hinges on the community, so campaigners were talking directly to villagers. Some campaigners bring posters and tell people that defecating in the open is dirty and shameful.

Jeneponto district head Radjamilo has since issued a regulation calling on people to stop defecating in the open. Each village is also encouraged to try to have the cleanest environment in the district.

“But we also told them that defecating in the open can lead to the spread of diseases, and spreading diseases is a sin,” Samsuddin said, adding that this was an effective tool.

He said, however, that campaigners should remember that they should never force people to build a toilet or give suggestions as to which brand to use. Campaigners should explain the issue in detail and repeat their message periodically.

Samsuddin added that continuous monitoring was needed to keep people motivated about the issue.

“We never act like teachers who know better than them. We should encourage, not teach,” he said.

But some village leaders, such as Jombe’s Baso, are getting creative.

Baso issued a village regulation in 2010 that stated that residents seeking an official recommendation to receive free health services or go on the hajj pilgrimage, or even stage a wedding party, should first have a toilet.

“Since then, more people have installed toilets in their homes. Now only 179 houses do not have toilets, but soon, these families will follow suit,” Baso said.

Some villagers are also saving money and effort by pooling their resources and building toilets together. After digging a septic tank, neighbors usually help each other install individual toilets.

While a squat toilet can be purchased for around Rp 15,000, people still need to buy cement and sand. On average, a household will spend around Rp 500,000 to build a toilet.

Jumali, a 65-year-old farmer, is one of the latest Jombe residents to now boast a toilet in his home. He said he would now stop going to his field to defecate.

“I haven’t tried it because we only finished installing it yesterday and [the cement is] still wet,” he said. “But I’m sure I will like the toilet better.”

The new toilet will be used by Jumali’s entire family, which includes his wife, their son and daughter-in-law, as well as their two grandchildren.