Just about everyone in South Africa wants a flush toilet. So why do municipalities still build dry toilets for poor families, perpetuating protests about toilet apartheid?
The simple answer is that flush toilets need a constant supply for water for flushing, and in many parts of South Africa municipalities are still struggling to provide a basic supply of drinking water within 200m. This is particularly tricky where people live in scattered homesteads, often on the top of hills. Putting sewer networks into these areas simply doesn’t work, because each dwelling is too far apart to provide sufficent dirty water to flush soilds; so they get blocked and malfunction. Dry toilets are a better option for now, and those who want to upgrade to a septic tank - which doesn’t need a long sewer pipe - can do so, provided they have a plentiful and continuous supply of water for flushing.
Flush toilets were invented over 400 years ago and there has been virtually no technological advance since then. The concept is simple: use water to carry wastes away. But is this still such a smart idea, given growing water scarcity globally?
Right now there are an estimated 612 million Africans without access to sanitation, and that figure is probably an underestimation. At the present rate of delivery, it will be another 150 years before Africa meets the Millenium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without access to sanitation. While we gasp at deaths from climatic disasters and wars, 2000 children a day die worldwide from diarrohea due to a lack of sanitation and clean water. What can be done?
In response, the sanitation fraternity is promoting a community led total sanitation (see earlier blog) seeks to eliminate open defecation by having a facilitator “trigger” change by shocking and shaming the community. Then the community takes it into its own hands to ensure each household builds a latrine (usually even an unimproved pit so long as the waste is covered). Households pay for their own toilets with no outside subsidies provided and draw on whatever community expertise exists to deal with construction questions, and are responsible for any improvements or cost of higher levels of sanitation. This is being adopted at scale by national governments across Asia and Africa, with support from multilateral and bilateral funders and implemented by large Northern based NGOs, and is promoted by one of community developments gurus, Robert Chambers from Sussex University. While not approved as yet, there are moves to shift the standard of sanitation so that CLTS allows countries to “tick the boxes” of meeting MDGs.
Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation is pumping money into technological responses, through its Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, won by solar, biogas, and composting toilet-developers, as well as extensive related research. Its aim is to find toilets that do not need water, produce byproducts that do not need expensive treatment, and are virtually free to operate. Bill Gates has visited Durban and is supporting eThekwini to develop ideas on sanitation originally put forward by both Marx and Gandhi: composting/ UD toilets and research to explore the uses of human waste, whether biogas or agricultural compost and fertilizer in the form of phosphorus.
These two approaches work on opposite assumptions: waste as disgusting versus waste as a reality that we need to deal with in a way that benefits us rather than draining our natural resources. But both ultimately face the same challenge: outsiders with a macro view see the scope and dire nature of the problem, and are keen to find solutions. By definition those solutions come from outside.
What can be done with solutions that come from outside? Try to get the community to take it on and drive it, eg CLTS advocates backed with the force of the sanitation fraternity?
Or come with technological solutions that offer a higher level of sanitation, eg Gates projects, although requiring a change in mindset for all in terms of our waste? How that gets introduced at the community level, whether through government provision or building of demand through “sanitation marketing” is significant.
What has transpired in South Africa post-1994 is indicative of its apartheid history. People want government to provide flush toilets, and all other options are considered inferior. One can argue that political prioritisation would allow redirection of military spending to water and sanitation and toilets could be constructed at a rapid rate throughout the country (such ambitious construction plans would certainly be possible as we saw with the World Cup stadiums). However this is a virtual impossibility, given the state of our municipalities (as well as our national water and sanitation departments) and the fact that water demand cannot be met in many catchments, forcing them to turn to re-use and massive desalinisation plans.
Still South Africa defaults to flush toilets wherever it can, and dry toilets everywhere else. Government programs promote VIPs as the preferred type of dry toilet, but there are big problems when the pit fulls; even the most attractive VIP can become unusable after three to five fears, leaving the family use it without a usable toilet. Getting the sludge out of a toilet is a difficult, often dangerous and expensive business.
So the municipality in Durban (eTHekwini) has turned to Urine Diversion toilets, a form of ecological sanitation used in Europe and elsewhere in the developing world. UDs have two shallow chambers; the toilet is placed on one side. Urine is diverted into the ground as it is sterile, faeces is covered with soil/sand/ ash/ lime and when the chamber is full it is sealed and left to compost. The toilet is moved to the other side. When the contents have completely dried and turned to compost, it is removed and buried in a hole and a tree can be planted.
The municipality built 80 000 UD toilets along the water borne sanitation edge outside Durban, which have been controversial. Having conducted community based action research on UDs across Durban, based on in depth and open ended interviews with over a hundred households and respondents across seven wards, Umphilo waManzi found that:
1. The main objection is equity. UDs hook the deep issues left by apartheid—are these toilets only provided to poor people? Why are flush toilets installed in neighbouring areas, particularly middle class and RDP houses, if there is no sewerage line for flush toilets?
This can be remedied by a wider roll out of UDs to middle class households. UDs are being used by the middle classes in some of the richest countries in the world. EWS is beginning on this track by constructing UD toilets in its new office block downtown.
REMEDY: Source UDs and offer incentives to middle class households to retrofit—immediately. Ensure better liaison with Department of Housing so there is one coherent plan.
2. Consultation and education was poor. Consultation was limited as options were limited. The municipality had Councillors appoint Institutional and Social Development consultants and only an estimated 20% of education was implemented properly.
REMEDY: Open up the discussion about reasons for UDs and paucity of options without fear, re-do education properly.
3. People don’t want to empty them. This is not surprising since they are not used properly, which makes them smell.
REMEDY: Find and train entrepreneurs to empty UDs. If need be, make plans to gather waste and process into compost to cover costs.
4. They need repair—fresh start, once assurance of vandalism eliminated.
REMEDY: Mass repair scheme (job creation?) and type of “amnesty” to repair vandalised elements
As a result many households are not using them.
eThekwini could no doubt have handled all of this differently. This shows the tendency of municipalities to develop ideas without bringing the community along. But it is also an indictment of our local government system, in which officials liaise with communities through Councillors and Ward Committees. In this case, Councillors supported the UD plan but then turned against it once problems arose.
It is high time that municipalities across South Africa—officials and councillors– realise the importance of listening to communities and acquiring expertise in community development (not rediscovering it with technical people extending their experiences) and working with NGOs/CBOs.
Right now there is a stand-off that suits no one. This provides an opening to opportunism by those who are politically driven, inside or outside the party, to which journalists are often prey. Rather than reflecting complexities and seeking solutions, they take a selective and unrepresentative sample of community responses, reflect them as coming from poor people as a whole, and use this to support their politically expedient conclusions.
What is needed is translational leadership, leaders who can speak the language of municipalities and of communities, seek to research and understand complexities, and have relationships with both to seek solutions.
So we shouldn’t damn innovative toilets. Instead we need to right the wrongs, get UDs to work, and get everyone around Durban using them. The municipality must attend to the four points above to turn the situation around and ensure that the 80 000 households have adequate sanitation. This would truly be moving the dilemma of sanitation forward internationally. It would show that our municipality stands out in Africa as having significant capacity and innovation—and the ability to respond to its citizens.