Category Archives: toilets

Lifting the Lid on Africa’s Toilet Crisis

7 December 2012

Lifting the Lid on Africa’s Toilet Crisis

by Luke Lythgoe

The 12th annual World Toilet Summit has recently concluded in Durban, the first time the event has been held in Africa. It follows in the wake of World Toilet Day, established on November 19, 2001, to raise awareness about numbers of people living without access to proper sanitation – a figure which stands at 2.6 billion worldwide.

The day and the summit are the initiatives of the World Toilet Organisation (WTO), a global non-profit organisation founded in Singapore, which recently derided the UN for failing to adopt World Toilet Day, suggesting they may be “scared of using the word ‘toilet’”. Consequently, the WTO set out to break down toilet taboos and ensure that the provision of improved sanitation facilities (UN nomenclature for ‘toilet’) is no longer overshadowed by its seemingly more wholesome companion cause of providing clean water.

Failure to honour the noble toilet with its own national day aside, accusing the UN of being unconcerned by matters of public sanitation seems unfair. Target 7C of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) was to “Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”. UN-Water, a coordinating mechanism overseeing all relevant organisations, was endorsed in 2003 to pursue this target. And while sanitation may not be celebrated in the annual manner of World Water Day, the UN saw fit to dedicate an entire International Year of Sanitation in 2008.

Progress so far: a drop in the ocean?

With two organisations championing of the issue, there has been a great deal of discussion on the international stage over sanitation in the last decade. But has this just been hot air or has it led to something more solid? In particular, how has the sanitation situation in Africa developed during this decade of activism? With over 600 million people lacking improved sanitation facilities on the continent, Africa has understandably become a major battleground in the fight to bring toilets to the masses.

Initially promising statistics released in a 2012 report by the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW), in conjunction with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF, quickly become disheartening on closer reading. On the one hand, 189 million more people across Africa gained access to improved sanitation facilities between 1990 and 2010, and the proportion of people with access to improved sanitation facilities has risen from 35% to 40%. On the other hand, however, largely due to the fact there are now 400 million more people in Africa than in 1990, there are 197 million more people without these essential amenities than two decades ago. In proportional terms there has been progress, but in real terms Africa’s exploding population means there are more living without improved sanitation facilities than before.

On a country-specific scale, the situation after over a decade of activism is even more demoralising. Only four sub-Saharan African countries (Angola, Botswana, Rwanda and South Africa) are on track to meet the 2015 targets, while North Africa is the only region that has managed to surpass the targets set at the beginning of the century.

The cost in human lives from continued poor sanitation is staggering, and statistics flagged up by UN-Water make for grim reading. Diarrhoea is the leading cause of illness and death globally, with 88% of these cases originally caused by poor sanitation or inadequate and unsafe water supplies. 12% of the combined health budget across sub-Saharan Africa is consumed by treating diarrhoea. And globally, 1.5 million children die annually from diseases caused by poor sanitation.

Kicking up a stink about sanitation

While tangible results against poor sanitation have been overwhelmed by sheer demographics, organisations have had more success in raising the profile of the cause.

As the pre-eminent Africa-specific organisation concerned with the plight of sanitation, the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) has had considerable success in getting the issue noticed by African governments such as through the African Sanitation and Hygiene Conferences (AfricaSan), and the subsequent development of the AfricaSan brand to promote sanitation in Africa.

The first conference, held in Johannesburg in 2002, saw sanitation adopted as a specific target of the MDGs. AfricaSan 2 in 2008 tied participant governments to important commitments to better sanitation, as part of the eThekwini Declaration. And AfricaSan 3, held last July in Rwanda, was the most spectacular conference yet, with 900 attendees from 67 different nations (42 from Africa). The choice of Kigali as a venue was also designed to emphasise the campaign’s continuing success, with Rwanda providing a shining example of how high levels of government involvement can produce positive results (54% of Rwanda’s population now have access to improved sanitation facilities).

AMCOW has devised other media-friendly initiatives alongside the conferences such as the AfricaSan awards, whose past winners include a Mozambican musician who writes about using latrines and washing hands. The World Toilet Organisation has also been active in raising public awareness of the issue, with its aforementioned annual summits and eye-catching events such as ‘Big Squats’ – a form of demonstration also utilised by the charity WaterAid.

But some see the various summits as little more than ineffectual talk shops. Sibusiso Zikode, spokesperson for the South African shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), denounced this year’s WTO summit in Durban for being “held without inviting the people who are in need of water and sanitation”, adding “many people want to speak for the poor and about the poor, but very few who will want to speak directly to them”.

Economies going down the toilet

Shunning the gaudier initiatives of award ceremonies or travelling sanitation circuses, other organisations have gone for a hard statistical approach to convincing governments to clean up their acts. This year, the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) published a detailed survey of 18 African countries detailing the economic disadvantages to letting sanitation remain in such a poor state. The survey represents 554 million people across many of the countries with the worst sanitation records.

The survey claims the 18 countries are collectively losing $5 billion annually due to poor sanitation, each haemorrhaging between 1% and 2.5% of their GDP due to the costs of sickness and high mortality. Providing country-specific data could hopefully push respective governments into action. Ghana, for example, is shown in the survey to be losing $290 million annually – equivalent to 1.6% of its GDP.

The survey also argues that the necessary investment in better sanitation far outweighs the economic losses of the prevailing situation. Most of the 18 countries are currently investing under 0.1% of their GDP in sanitation – only 5 are investing between 0.1% and 0.5%. Solutions proposed by the survey are hardly unachievable – in Ghana, for example, the construction of just 1 million toilets would dramatically reduce the problem.

The international campaigns of the last decade to improve sanitation in Africa have rapidly raised the profile of this often overlooked issue. Global summits, international days and damning reports all contribute to this long overdue furore. But the key is getting African governments to truly commit to investment in sanitation. International conferences, publicity and economic arguments all go some way to achieving this goal. But with mortality rates due to poor sanitation still soaring in Africa – far higher than conflict, or even HIV/AIDS – perhaps it is time we overcame the taboos and were more vocal in championing the cause of the humble toilet.

SABC: World Toilet Summit starts today

World Toilet Summit starts today

4 December 2012

The 12th annual World Toilet Summit gets underway in Durban today. However, ordinary men and women on the streets say they do not know what the summit will be about. The three day conference is expected to attract over a thousand delegates and exhibitors and is expected to focus on human rights, health and hygiene.

The main summit theme is African sanitation: Scaling up dignity for all. Spokesperson for the South African shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, Sibusiso Zikode says the summit will be another talk shop as the people who do not have access to water and sanitation are not part of the conference. Zikode says communities without proper toilets were never invited to participate in the conference.

He says, “The summit is one of those talk shops because it does not include the people who are actually in need of toilets. In fact it is unacceptable for such conferences to be held without inviting the people who are in need of water and sanitation. The very same trend continues that so many people want to speak for the poor and about the poor, but very few who will want to speak directly to them. It is true that in South Africa like in many informal settlements there is hardly any water and sanitation.”

Meanwhile, other residents outside Durban say they are still using pit toilets and had no idea what the toilets summit will be discussing in Durban. They say they want government to provide them flushing toilets which will result in their community being clean. The current ground toilets are said to be unsafe for children.

President Jacob Zuma has urged government to speed up the process to provide them with proper toilets.

Anything but the Bucket

Produced by Andy Leve, Duduetsang Makuse & Prinesh Naidoo
Pretty Dandy Productions – 24 minutes
School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University

People In Kwandancama Township in Grahamstown still use the bucket system introduced during apartheid. They are some of the more than 130 000 people in the Eastern Cape still using the bucket and want the chance to use “proper” flush toilets. We document the journey of Siliwe Ntlanjeni and her frustration in the community and help her to look at the economically and environmentally viable alternatives to those who really want anything but the bucket.

Mercury: Toilets that became political dynamite

Toilets that became political dynamite

June 27 2011 at 11:48am

Steven Robins

In February I joined a group of American exchange students who visited the social movement for the urban poor, Abahlali baseMjondolo, in Khayelitsha’s QQ Section.

Abahlali-Western Cape had been in the news last year over its almost daily erection of barricades in Khayelitsha, and its calls for popular protests to render Cape Town ungovernable until service delivery needs in informal settlements were satisfied.

One of the movement leaders, Mzonke Poni, accompanied the exchange students on a walk through QQ Section. He stopped in front of a large mound of garbage and began to speak about daily conditions. He said residents had to relieve themselves in buckets and plastic bags, and threw these bags, “flying toilets”, into the wetlands where it was not possible to build houses.

Poni also described how residents walked long distances to use the toilets of shebeen owners and residents who lived in formal housing called Q Section. Sometimes they were charged, and many could not afford toilet fees.

The students were overwhelmed both by Poni’s descriptions and by the stench coming from the piles of waste.

Having recently visited an informal settlement in Khayelitisha called RR Section where the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) had got the city to improve sanitation infrastructure, I, too, was shocked by the sight and smell of the garbage.

What we did not anticipate during our visit in February was that the open toilet scandals were about to explode in the run-up to the May elections.

Politicians, journalists and the electorate seemed stunned by the sight of these open toilets in Makhaza in Khayelitsha and Moqhaka in the Free State.

Notwithstanding concerted efforts by social movement activists from bodies such as the SJC and Abahlali to draw attention to the ongoing sanitation crises, prior to the open toilet scandal there had been very little public and media concern about practices of open defecation, the bucket or plastic bag system. There was something specific about the image of the modern porcelain toilet without walls that triggered outrage. How did the open toilet become such a potent political symbol and sign of indignity?

Before 2011, toilets and sanitation were not considered “properly political” issues. While service delivery protests had indeed become a national political concern, media and analysts did not directly associate these protests with toilets and sanitation. Instead, they focused on grievances about local government corruption and poor service delivery of housing, water, and electricity.

Although the spectacle of the burning barricades had drawn public and media attention, the underlying issues of “structural violence” and systemic problems associated with the long-term consequences of chronic poverty did not seem to be of particular interest.

This is not unique to South Africa, and pro-poor activists all over the world routinely encounter the difficulties of getting their campaigns covered by news media that tend to be biased towards the “spectacular suffering” from famines, wars, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and so on.

Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” provides useful insights.

The long-term processes of structural violence experienced by the poor pose similar problems. Activists, social movements and NGOs constantly face the problem of trying to make “unspectacular suffering” visible to the public, donors, and governments. For example, once Aids treatment was provided in the SA public health system in 2004, the media were less interested in Aids as this was seen to have become mundane, technical and bureaucratic matters of public health service delivery.

NGOs and activists also routinely encounter the difficulty of engaging with a public that is fatigued by daily bombardment with television images of suffering in faraway places – now an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation threat in Japan, and tomorrow civil war in Libya.

For activists working with issues of poverty and structural violence the problem becomes one of translating forms of “unspectacular”, mundane, everyday suffering into images and texts that evoke sympathy and political action.

During the anti-apartheid struggle the politics of the spectacle was very visible. This was largely due to the spectacular character of both state repression and forms of popular resistance. This politics of the spectacle has persisted into the post-apartheid period.

For example, writing about service delivery protests, Jacob Dlamini, the author of Native Nostalgia, has noted that these protests tended to conform to a relatively standardised script characterised by “revelry, the burning down of government property, the erection of petrol-soaked tyre barricades and the inevitable handover of a memorandum of demands to a government official.”

Although these spectacular acts of popular resistance are almost guaranteed to draw media attention, there are sometimes costs involved in focusing on the spectacular to the exclusion of the mundane.

In the case of the open toilets scandal, what appeared to be a mundane, everyday object, the toilet, was dramatically made spectacular and came to symbolise politically charged conceptions of basic human dignity and privacy.

There are of course many possible ways of interpreting why the open toilet took on such potent symbolic currency, why it came to be seen as such an affront to black dignity, and how it became the key issue in the run-up to the 2011 elections.

The association with apartheid’s assault on the dignity of black South Africans is one compelling interpretation of why the images of the open toilets “went viral”. Matters of dignity and privacy, so central to South Africa’s constitution, seemed to be rendered meaningless by images of toilets without walls.

For Judge Nathan Erasmus who presided over the Makhaza open toilets case, the indignity of open toilets resonated with the historical memory of the struggle against apartheid.

As he put it, “The constitution asserts dignity to contradict our past in which human dignity for black South Africans was routinely and cruelly denied.” For Judge Erasmus, and many other South Africans, the open toilet was a condensation of all the humiliations and denigrations of black people during apartheid.

Alongside these legalistic and human rights concerns related to interpretations of dignity and privacy, the highly publicised spectacle of toilets without walls produced powerful symbolic effects that made it very difficult for politicians, State officials and citizens to reconcile the progressive, rights-based constitutional democracy with the idea of people defecating in public.

But there were still other twists and turns. From the perspective of the ANC and its youth league in the Western Cape, the open toilets in Makhaza were a gift from the gods, and they became the core theme of the ANC’s election speeches. For the ANC Youth League in particular, these toilets were clear evidence of the inherent racism of the Democratic Alliance.

However, this idea imploded when journalists began reporting on open toilets in the ANC- controlled Free State.

One of the reasons that the middle classes and political elites were so shocked by the open toilets publicity in the media was that these toilets were identical to those found in middle-class homes, the only difference being that the middle-classes defecate in strict privacy.

It would seem possible that the open toilets became the number one political issue in 2011 because images of the modern toilet without walls shattered middle-class sensibilities and assumptions about the inherent privacy of defecation.

Whereas open defecation is widespread in South Africa, as it is in many other parts of the global south, open toilets profoundly unsettled many South Africans’ views of themselves as belonging to a modern democratic state.

What did not surface in public discourses following the media’s dissemination of the spectacular image of the open toilet, were the normalised, daily practices of open defecation and the abysmal sanitation conditions in many informal settlements.

As the Social Justice Coalition has noted, some 10.5 million people in South Africa continue to live without access to basic sanitation, and millions of South African citizens still have no access to a toilet, and have to relieve themselves in the open, making themselves vulnerable to assault, robbery, rape and even murder.

The poor state of sanitation in many informal settlements also contributes to the transmission of waterborne diseases and illness, and diarrhoea has been identified as one of the leading causes of deaths for children under five in informal settlements.

While the spectacular images of the open toilets in Makhaza and Moqhaka politicised sanitation in the run-up to the local government elections, this politics of the spectacle also obscured the more mundane indignities, health hazards and forms of structural violence that millions of poor people have to endure on a daily basis.

Although the toilets in Makhaza will soon be properly enclosed in response to the High Court order, the broader issues of slow, structural violence that briefly surfaced during the Toilet Wars, will no doubt continue to be eclipsed by the politics of the spectacle – the Malema Daily Show, the ANC’s internal factional wars, new allegations about the arms deal, and numerous other media-friendly spectacles.

Robins is professor of sociology and social anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch

Makhaza Land Invasion

Makhaza Land Invasion

Abahlali baseMjondolo Western Cape support the initiative of creating community from below by Makhaza back yard dwellers.

Within the city of Cape Town there is a backlog of housing for more than 500 000 people and this number increase by 20 000 while the city of Cape Town can only afford to build 8 000 houses per year.

It is clear that people who are in the waiting list and those living within informal settlements will have to wait more than 30 years before they can access decent houses within the city of Cape Town.

For the past few days people of Makhaza at section 36 have been building their own shacks at an open space of unused land for more than 17 years, most of these people have been in the waiting for more than 15 years.

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