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Rio+20 sustainability conference: Got toilets?

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As more and more Nigerians flood into Lagos in search of jobs and opportunities, the sanitation system is badly under strain. Without improvements, risks of disease increase. Already Nigeria has been hit by several cholera outbreaks, claiming thousands of lives.

Poor sanitation is the main cause of outbreaks like this in a country where 33 million people lack access to toilets. Human waste is out in the open and can contaminate water sources.

Diseases can be carried in human waste, and their top casualties are babies and toddlers. This contributes to Nigeria's high infant mortality rate.

For some, a starting point is simply raising the issue of sanitation, which has long been taboo.

"This habit of doing in public what ought to be done in private strikes me as pointing to a much deeper cultural crisis," US-based Nigerian academic Okey Ndibe wrote last year in a column titled "Nigeria As One Open Toilet."

Nowhere is this problem more stark than in the commercial hub of Lagos, where city officials struggle to meet the needs of the millions of people they are aware of, not to mention the untold millions who don't get counted by census workers, and the nearly 600,000 who keep arriving each year. So far they have bumped up the population to an estimated 11.2 million.

Some Lagosians deliberately live off the grid, while others, including middle-class people like Achionye, desperately want to get connected to sanitation services but are told they must wait.

For Lagos state Gov. Babatunde Fashola, credited with improving several parts of the city, the slums are hard to penetrate, and change comes slowly. His administration has started working on creating passable roads in slums, but many remain in bad shape. The government has also demolished illegal structures built on sewage passageways, but that led to the displacement of thousands of people, highlighting a challenge of working in the slums. For the poor, the demand for urban housing creates a scramble so ruthless that, for many, a toilet and a bathroom – even shared – is a luxury.

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