Saving Lives at Risk from Open Defecation (Part 1)

Saving Lives at Risk from Open Defecation (Part 1) October 20, 2018

Wills Point, Texas – Gospel for Asia Special Report (GFA) – Discussing the troubling problem of open defecation and the lack of basic sanitation facilities for millions throughout the world.

Saving Lives at Risk from Open Defecation (Part 1) - KP Yohannan - Gospel for Asia
2.3 billion worldwide lack basic sanitation facilities and 892 million still defecate in the open, according to World Health Organization.
Karen Mains, author
Karen Burton Mains, author

For much of my adult life, it has been my privilege to hang out with the “renegades” of Christian missions, that relief-and-development crowd that rushes to help during natural disasters, struggles to alleviate the suffering and abasement of refugee displacement, and pays concerted attention to the everyday struggles of everyday living in the developing nations of the world.

The first trip I made around the world was at the invitation of Food for the Hungry, and I traveled with Larry Ward, the executive director at the time, and his wife, Lorraine. It was on this trip I became convinced this particular crew of crisis-ready, crisis-solving, crisis-adaptive humans was fueled solely by adrenaline (“When does he sleep?”).

The purpose of the trip was an international field survey with an emphasis on the refugee crisis in the world, which at that time in the 1980’s was the largest since World War II. We started in Hong Kong and ended seven weeks later in Kenya, Africa. My assignment was to observe with fresh eyes and to write about what I had seen.

The book I wrote, The Fragile Curtain, with the help of daily briefings from the U.S. State Department and the excellent international reporting of “The Christian Science Monitor” (as well as some generous coaching from a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter) won a Christopher Award, a national prize for works that represent “the highest values of the human spirit.”

Eventually, I brought the accumulated exposure of my world travels—some 55 countries in all—and the learning I had gathered through journalism research and the actualities of dragging through camps and slums to the board table of Medical Ambassadors International (MAI), a global faith-based health organization.

The former international field director of MAI, now working to create a coalition of some 250 mission groups and development organizations implementing the MAI teaching methodology, made a statement I thought about for years:

“I never realized,” he said, “that I would eventually measure the impact of the Gospel by how many toilets had been built in a village.”

Women and girls are often at risk when open defecation - KP Yohannan - Gospel for Asia
Women and girls are often at risk when open defecation is the only option for relieving themselves. Thankfully, these precious faces can smile because a toilet facility was recently built in their village.

GFA’s Story: Fighting Open Defecation, Helping to Improve Sanitation in Asia

So what does Christianity have to do with the defecation problems of the world?

Gospel for Asia (GFA) is an organization close to the heart of my husband, David Mains, and to myself. We met K.P. Yohannan, GFA’s founder, when it was just an impelling vision in the heart of a young Indian man—one of those divine nudges that simply would not stop pushing at him. Since then, David has traveled to Asia at the invitation of Gospel for Asia (GFA) some eight times; I have visited Asia under their auspices once. We’ve watched as K.P.’s vision grew from a dream to an actuality with numbers beyond anything we could have considered possible.

GFA’s website tells its story, and its story is vast:

  • In 2016, some 82,000 impoverished children were fed, clothed and schooled;
  • 829 medical camps provided hundreds of people with free medical care and advice;
  • 10,512 latrines with dual-tank sanitation systems were constructed.
Family in Asia next to a sanitation project from Gospel for Asia - KP Yohannan
This family stands in front of a latrine or “squatty potty” that was installed by GFA-supported national workers.

Gospel for Asia (GFA) started building latrines in 2012, setting a goal of constructing some 15,000 concrete outhouses by 2016. Potable water, of course, travels hand in hand with sanitation, and in 2016, the ministry’s field partners constructed more than 6,822 “Jesus Wells” and distributed 14,886 BioSand water filters to purify drinking water. Touching vignettes on GFA’s website make the statistics personal.

“This saved the lives of people from illness,” stated one villager—and indeed, toilets, when and if they are used, do just that.

A village elder expressed thanks:

“The church is always concerned about the need of people and works hard for a brilliant life for the community.”

There, indeed, is a thread that runs through Gospel for Asia’s stories of toilets: The pastor of the church in this village or that hamlet seems to be the catalyst for health improvement.

Organizations Tackling the Open Defecation Sanitation Crisis

Matt Damon from smiling about clean water - KP Yohannan - Gospel for Asia
Matt Damon, the founder of (photo credit

Much of the world is in a war against the perils caused by inadequate or non-existent sanitation. People as diverse as Matt Damon, a Hollywood celebrity, award-winning actor and producer/screenwriter; and Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India, are battling uphill against open defecation (in the sewers, in running streams, by the roadsides, in the fields and the forests, in garbage dumps).

Damon, driven by a desire to make a difference in solving extreme poverty, discovered that water and sanitation were the two basic foundations beneath much of what ails the world. Through his charity,, he and his business partner, Gary White, are using the microfinance template to provide loans for underserved people to connect to a service utility or to build a latrine for their homes. Some 5.5 million people have been impacted by his approach, and the group estimates they will reach another 2.5 million by the end of 2017.

Prime Minister Modi campaigned to end open defecation and build latrines for India - KP Yohannan - Gospel for Asia
Prime Minister Modi campaigned to end open defecation and build latrines for India. Photo by narendramodiofficial on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Modi actually campaigned for office with the slogan “Toilets Before Temples.” Using Gandhi’s 150th birthday—October 2, 2019—as a goal, the Indian prime minister declared his intention to end open defecation in the country by that date. A campaign was framed, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), and $40 billion was allotted for building latrines and changing mindsets, while the World Bank contributed loans totaling another $1.5 billion.

Another big player in the sanitation action is the United Nations, which in 2000 established Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. While many of these goals were reached (some statisticians conclude that world poverty was halved; others, of course, disagree), progress nevertheless was erratic—great success here and there with some signee countries having few or no results.

Whereas, as Matt Damon discovered, improving sanitation along with clean water, undergirds many of the problems included in what is now being reframed by the UN as Sustainable Development Goals, the target to halve the proportion of the population living without access to improved sanitation facilities by 2015 was missed by almost 700 million people.

Saving Lives at Risk from Open Defecation: Part 2 | Part 3

This article originally appeared on

To read more on Patheos on the problem of open defecation, go here.

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