The Times: Scandal of the low-cost housing settlements

Scandal of the low-cost housing settlements
Overcrowding leads to pollution and disease
Mar 26, 2011 11:42 PM | By BOBBY JORDAN

She is one of millions of South Africans who must use polluted water because of overcrowding.

These conditions are turning government’s low-cost housing settlements into death-traps, according to shock findings in a study by the University of Stellenbosch.

The research reveals that overcrowding in state-subsidised housing projects is leading to water pollution and serious health risks to residents.

The findings conclude that the government’s housing policy may be doing more harm than good by placing too many people in too small a space.

The research report, published in international journal Habitat, says the problem stems from the unregulated growth of “back-yard shacks” which home owners erect to earn rent. The number of “back-yarders” has effectively doubled the population inside housing developments and the plumbing cannot cope.

Researchers analysed the water quality at four low-cost housing developments in and around Cape Town – Driftsand, Greenfields, Masiphumelele and Tafelsig.

The report highlighted a worrying build-up of human waste clogging up toilets and storm-water drains. Some of the more shocking findings include:

Only two state-subsidised homes did not have a back-yard dwelling (shack) attached on the property;

Less than half the toilets are still working;

Drains were dirty, with sewage-laden water spilling over in 92% of the houses;

40% of main households reported one or more cases of diarrhoea in the two weeks preceding the survey;

48% of households reported at least two structural problems with their houses such as cracks or water leaks; and,

99% said they were unable to afford repairs.

Ironically, residents inside the house are more at risk than tenants living outside as the inside tap area was most infected with harmful bacteria.

Researcher Jo Barnes said the results showed the state must urgently reconsider its housing guidelines.

“The government has inherited a very large problem, but, just plonking boxes on the ground and stuffing people into them is not the answer. We are causing massive water pollution,” Barnes said.

Barnes said government had “tied themselves in a knot” by failing to act against back-yard shacks as the state is obliged to find alternative accommodation for back-yard dwellers before evicting them.

She said research showed many homeowners did not understand basic hygiene or plumbing principles and did not have the means to repair blocked or broken drains. “According to them (the new home-owners), that toilet lever is like a delete button – it takes things away. Those who have toilets are using them to flush away dirty water with peels and things from the kitchen.”

Cape Town metropolitan council spokesman Kylie Hatton said housing development was restricted by budget and national housing guidelines.

Human Settlements director general Thabane Zulu said while municipalities were ultimately responsible for enforcing regulations relating to building standards and conditions, homeowners also needed to take responsibility for maintaining their homes. Zulu said: “It is not just water infrastructure, but the department is concerned with general maintenance of the homes. On Wednesday at a handover of a new social housing project in Cape Town one of the things the Minister emphasised was the responsibility the home owners have to their property, especially with regards to maintenance.”