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Press Release 
Jay Bhagwan 
Basic sanitation in South Africa is a constitutional right

Basic sanitation in South Africa is a constitutional right, but for millions of South Africans it is a faraway dream. Given the large costs, logistical, technical and social issues, South Africa is a long way from providing its citizens with its promise of basic sanitation for all. During Sanitation Week in May Dr Sudhir Pillay of the Water Research Commission explains the need to reinvent the toilet.

Africa as a continent is running to a standstill when it comes to delivering adequate sanitation facilities for all its citizens. With rapidly growing populations, there are currently more people without proper toilet facilities than in 1990. Governments simply cannot keep up with supplying enough toilets to their people. The number of those without toilets in Africa has doubled to around 175 million. Another nine million urban toilets need to be built in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) alone. South Africa is no exception.

While it is enshrined in South Africa’s constitution that every person has the right to access to basic sanitation, the reality is that there are millions of people still living with pit latrines.

The South African government has committed to “service” these latrines at least every five years by emptying them, but the municipalities responsible for this are struggling to implement this policy.

Many schools have to make do with pit latrines, and in the past two years there have been at least two horrific incidents where children fell into pit latrines and drowned.

The South African government has committed itself to provide 100% of its citizens with basic water and sanitation by 2015, and while it has reached its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for water, it is falling far behind in providing sanitation infrastructure.

According to a World Bank Country Status Overview, commissioned by the African Ministers Council on Water in 2010, South Africa had to invest R14,7 billion per year to reach this goal. With only R6,6 billion available, the country had a shortfall of R8,1 billion per year. That was just to meet the backlog, and does not include the cost of servicing existing sanitation infrastructure, which cost R5,9 billion per year.

It is clear that there was an urgent need to reinvent the toilet. Basic sanitation does not only mean a healthier community, but also enhances the safety and dignity of people (especially women and children), and improves environmental health.

As things stand, South Africa – like most of its African counterparts – simply cannot afford to provide basic sanitation for its people. The Water Research Commission (WRC), together with partners that include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology, has been investigating alternative technologies and ways to improve the living conditions of millions of people. The challenge in providing all South African households with basic sanitation is not just about finding the right technology to properly suit the logistical needs. It is also a social challenge. Most people living in rural areas view proper flush toilets as a symbol of equality, and therefore insist on having flush latrines instead of dry toilets like Ventilated Improved Pit (VIP) Latrines – the government’s recommended level of basic sanitation technology.

Various studies by the WRC have also highlighted the challenges associated with emptying VIPs and the safe disposal of the sludge content. This is not only messy and unpleasant but also dangerous as the sludge typically contains a range of infectious human pathogens. With this in mind, the WRC has developed an on-site, pour flush system, that uses a low volume of water and results in a sludge with a higher moisture content and lower solid waste content, enabling it to be removed with standard vacuum technologies. These pour-flush and low-flush toilets bridge the gap between on-site dry sanitation and full waterborne sanitation, using a small amount of water or grey water (1l – 2.5l) to flush the system into a soak away or leach pit. This takes away the need to dig deep pits and is more convenient to users in terms of smells and control.

A pilot study of this new technology has been carried out in KwaZulu-Natal where low flush toilets were installed in houses and schools. This study was highly successful. It proved to be a viable option for municipalities under pressure to provide flushing toilets where laying sewers is not feasible or affordable, or for households who wish to upgrade their existing VIP system. There are now plans to pilot the unit on a larger scale in both residential and institutional contexts.

The WRC together with Ethekwini Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal plans to install 600 units in the near future. It could soon be expanded as a viable way for the South African government – and other African governments – to solve the ongoing basic sanitation headache.

For further details contact:

Adriaan Taljaard email : adriaant@wrc.org.za


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