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Providing sanitation to Africa’s slums: no silver bullet

Miriam Mannak

Story by GRID-Arendal July 18th, 2017

Access to sanitation and wastewater management in Africa’s informal settlements is dire. Some regions, however, are standing out in terms of developing water and sanitation programmes for the poor, serving as role models for the entire continent.

The air in Mandela Park, an informal settlement near Cape Town, is saturated with the smell of human waste, urine, and rotting refuse. Rain often transforms the unpaved walkways in between the hundreds of shacks into soggy streams of pungent mud.

Of all socio-economic problems facing slums like Mandela Park, poor wastewater management services and inadequate access to dignified sanitation top the list. “Sometimes, 30 to 50 people living in informal settlements have to share one toilet,” says Axolile Notywala, Head of the Local Government Programme at the Social Justice Coalition. “Communal toilets are often blocked, forcing people to relieve themselves in the open.”

Photo: Miriam Mannak

Urbanisation and sanitation in Africa

In the African context, Mandela Park is no exception. The situation here is similar to that in informal settlements in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and other parts of Africa, the 2017 United Nations World Water Development Report shows.

The World Water Development report suggests that 695 million Africans do not have access to basic sanitation. These include many urban dwellers. Ailing infrastructure is one of the key reasons, and rapid urbanisation is expected to worsen the shortage of sanitation services. “African cities are growing so quickly that their water management systems cannot keep up with the growing demand,” the report says. “It has been estimated that half of the urban infrastructure that will make up African cities by 2035 has yet to be built”.

Not having access to water and sanitation goes beyond the obvious health implications, says Jo Barnes, an epidemiologist at the University of Stellenbosch. “Because informal settlement residents often have to walk long distances to access toilets and water, they tend to use water sparingly. This means they do not always wash their hands after going to the toilet, nor do they do their dishes every day,” she says. “On a hot summer day, this leads to food scraps spoiling and water contamination, causing numerous health problems.”

Photo: Miriam Mannak

Complex problems

Poor access to toilets and water has personal safety implications, too. Across Africa, people are attacked, robbed, raped and sometimes killed when they fetch water or go to often dysfunctional communal toilet facilities. This has been a problem in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria for quite some time.

These personal safety concerns contribute to the water and sanitation-related health problem spectrum. “In avoidance of having to relieve themselves in a communal toilet or in the open at night, many informal settlement residents use buckets lined with a plastic bag,” Barnes says. “These buckets are emptied during the day – often in communal waste dumpsters or gutters because of a lack of other options. This leads to chronic contamination of ground and storm water, impacting human health.”

“Solving water and sanitation issues in Africa’s informal settlements is as multi-dimensional as the problem itself,” says urban planning and water and sanitation researcher Gillian Maree. “Informal settlements are not just slums on the edge of cities. They also exist within a city, and they do not per se come in the form of shacks, either. You can have occupations of existing buildings which had the services cut off, making it challenging for local authorities to provide basic services, particularly if the building is not owned by them.”

Photo: Miriam Mannak

Low-cost decentralised water treatment

One of Africa’s role models in terms of delivering inclusive sanitation and wastewater services to the poor is found in South Arica’s eThekwini, which includes Durban. The municipality built special shipping containers refitted with toilets, showers, urinals, and laundry facilities with water shipped in by tankers. The project has improved the lives of half a million informal settlement residents, for which the local authorities received the 2014 Stockholm Industry Water Award and the 2015 African Municipality of the Year Award.

“eThekwini is extremely proactive in researching sanitation solutions for informal settlements,” says Björn Pietruschka, international research & development coordinator at the Bremen Overseas Research & Development Association (Borda). The German NGO that develops decentralised wastewater treatment and solid waste disposal projects across Africa is currently working with the authorities to implement Decentralised Wastewater Treatment Systems (DEWATS). Types of these low-cost, modular anaerobic wastewater treatment plants have been used in Nigeria, Uganda and other African countries for years.

DEWATS are good solutions for informal settlements because they are low-maintenance and gravity-controlled, Pietruschka says. “They do not need power. Additionally, they create jobs, for instance, in terms of people removing blockages and performing low-tech maintenance. This means the community has a stake in it, which is important.”

Footnote: Header Photo: Miriam Mannak