South Africa: The Neoliberal loo

February 28, 2008

Should poor people be given pit latrines and other devices to limit their consumption of water? A resounding yes was heard at the Africa Sanitation conference held during February at the Luthuli International Conference Centre in Durban.

Several hundred experts came for "toilet talk" this week. With one exception, our own attempts to enter the centre along with civil society colleagues were barred by the R2000 (A$333) entrance fee. Only a few passes went to community groups.

If allowed in, more civil society critics would raise the essential problem across the continent, including South Africa: under-funding.

Toilets and bulk wastewater pipes dug down out of sight and mind aren't sexy for donors to show off to politicians and constituents.

Moreover, for the last quarter century, the pressures of World Bank structural adjustment programs broke African governments' abilities to meet the citizenry's needs, even basic water/sanitation infrastructure.

Today, most African states are run by venal elites who don't care where their poorest residents defecate. Durban provides just a handful of public toilets to thousands of people in each of the city's burgeoning shack settlements.

The new conventional wisdom is that self-help "total sanitation" (including hygiene education) should replace state responsibility. Without subsidies, if you can't pay, then you can't pee or poo in comfort.

Jon Lane of the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council is blunt: "The need is to take sanitation technology from being subsidy-driven, which it so far is, and make it market-driven."

In reality, the problem is not the subsidy per se, but its small amount.

Across the continent, typically, a tiny capital grant only allows poor people to build a rudimentary pit toilet, or at best one with some ventilation to trap flies.

Stay broken

Operating and maintenance subsidies are practically never supplied, even to empty the pits after they have filled up.

When water systems break down for the lack of borehole diesel or broken piping, they stay broken.

From the early 1990s, the Development Bank of Southern Africa, Mvula Trust and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry began persuading poor people not to use water for flushing.

When persuasion doesn't work, officials simply impose dry toilets such as ventilated improved pit-latrines (VIPs) on very impoverished people, who are invariably black.

Recall the Apartheid regime's filthy "bucket system" for South Africa's "temporary sojourners": i.e. all black people living in cities. Water was a weapon in the white government's arsenal of oppression and control.

But what goes around sometimes comes around. Mike Muller, a former department of water affairs and forestry director general, said that "the buckets, especially when not emptied by inefficient municipalities, provide community activists with an effective and ready-made weapon of protest, which has been used with substantial effect in protests about poor service delivery".

Today, 14 years after Apartheid ended, hundreds of thousands of people still suffer buckets, in spite of President Thabo Mbeki's promise that by 2007 we were supposed be rid of that 19th Century system.

Shockingly, there are still 9270 bucket latrines in wealthy Durban, along with 148,688 unventilated pit-latrines and 41,880 chemical toilets.

Lack of adequate sewage disposal, combined with heavy rains, high temperatures and accidental spilling of these buckets, create a perfect storm of diarrhoea, other gastro-intestinal disorders, and worm infestations — fatal threats to the many HIV-positive cases.

Worse, the alleged sanitation "improvements" since 1994 includes mass installations of VIPs.


As former Johannesburg water regulator Kathy Eales said: "Many VIPs are now full and unusable. In many areas, VIPs are now called 'full-ups'. Some pits were too small, or were fully sealed."

According to Eales, "South Africa's household sanitation policy is grossly inadequate. It speaks primarily to dry systems, and does not clarify roles and responsibilities around what to do when pits are full."

Two innovations may make matters worse.

Sowetans are protesting against new "condominial shallow sewage" systems introduced by the French water privatiser Suez, which ran Johannesburg Water from 2001 until it was expelled five years later.

Victims of this experiment have no water cisterns above the loo, much thinner pipes, and lower gravity to get excrement out to the mains.

These clog up not by accident, but by design. Then, according to 12-step instructions provided by Suez, women are meant to stick their hands (with gloves, to be sure) into the pipes to remove it by hand.

In Durban, a post-apartheid bucket system — the urinary diversion (UD) toilet — was foisted on 60,000 households.

With their double-pits, separating urine and faeces so as to speed decomposition, the UDs are theoretically useful in water-scarce rural areas. But in Durban, with its humid weather and hence slow-drying excrement?

Earlier this month, Science magazine praised Durban head of water Neil Macleod's efforts.

But the experience in the communities we know best — Umzinyathi and KwaNgcolosi in peri-urban Inanda — is unsatisfactory.

UDs have internal buckets that require emptying. No training was given on how to deal with faeces, except to dump it in the garden "for fertilising your veggies".

Many are repelled by use of human excrement (compared to cow-dung) as fertiliser, because of the many diseases surrounding them.

The burden of cleaning is left to women.

Other creative opportunities for bio-gas are also foreclosed by UDs. Many UDs have become mere storerooms or are permanently locked because of the smell.

Councillors are useless when the UDs cease functioning. Nationally, our toilets are a scandal, for as Muller confessed last year: "The expansion of sanitation services to the unserved is slowing."

He specifically cited Trevor Manuel's 2006 Division of Revenue Act because of its "clear incentives for municipalities not to extend services to the unserved".

To change this we need more state funding and genuinely pro-poor policies that get poor people appropriate supplies of waterborne sanitation, including micro biodigesters (sophisticated septic tanks) that convert excrement into gas for off-grid rural areas.

And in turn, we need much more political pressure. If we don't get it, the government's reversion to VIP latrines, chemical toilets, UDs and condominial sewers means that Apartheid's sanitation indignities will be reconstituted.

[The authors are researchers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Centre for Civil Society. Patrick Bond is a guest at Green Left Weekly's Climate Change — Social Change conference in Sydney from April 11-13. Visit .]

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