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Part 1: An innovative approach to sanitation in Cape Town?




Photo from the Gates Foundation

Photo from the Gates Foundation

Part 1
The ‘poo wars’ are taking Cape Town by storm… again. They are politically charged, indelibly tied to Apartheid planning but ultimately about giving people (yes, people) the dignity to poo; safely, in private and without compromising the health of their community – something most people reading this blog take for granted.
On current evidence, it seems the truth of the matter is that providing basic sanitation services to South Africa’s poor seems too big a challenge for our major cities, regardless of who governs them (unpalatable as that might be to many DA supporters). In their defence though, delivering effective sanitation services to informal settlements is a tough ask, with few successful precedents globally.
This post is a response to a ‘conversation’ with WC premier, Helen Zille on Twitter (@helenzille) about the failure of The City of Cape Town to commit to a process of getting the problem solved. My biggest grievance is that the current approach has not even begun to test the possible innovative options and is desperately lacking in compassion – neglecting the dignity granted to all people by the bill of rights.
Informal settlements – slums – are a feature of nearly every emerging city. In many ways they provide an optimal, self-organising strategy for allowing people to escape rural poverty within whatever means they have and access the social and economic opportunities of cities. Slums are not, in and of themselves, a problem.
But they are devilishly difficult to service with municipal infrastructure – water, sanitation, waste collection and transport. They’re also a challenge for essential services like health, education and security. In essence this is because our traditional approach to delivering services is that infrastructure comes first and people come later. When dwellings come first, we don’t have good models for fitting infrastructure in afterwards.
Photo from the Gates Foundation

Photo from the Gates Foundation

With specific reference to the Cape Town saga, the difficulty is not in providing flush toilets in slums. That bit is rather easy actually. The difficulty is in connecting those toilets to the water, sewer and treatment plant infrastructure that make them work. A conventional flush loo with no sewer is of little use to anyone… And to retrofit sewer systems into informal settlements is nearly impossible without displacing thousands of people… Displacing people has been shown to be a universally bad idea, and especially so in a country with the political history of South Africa.
The result is that local government throw their hands up, claiming to be in a ‘lose-lose’ situation. Unable to deliver the service they are comfortable with (sewer connected, water-borne sanitation) and facing the demand for flushing toilets (rather than the all-too-prevalent bucket or pit latrine systems), they deliver Portable Flush Toilets (PFTs).
These are the sort of thing you may be used to using at a construction site or music festival and are delivered as a flushing ‘solution’ to the demands of settlement citizens, without really understanding their underlying needs at all… It’s not really about flushing; but rather safety, dignity and health.
This ‘solution’ inevitably falls apart – when inadequately maintained, the PFTs, not designed for the task of full-time service in the first place, end up broken, unsanitary and unsafe… And children end up playing in a cesspit, adding to the already overburdened public health system. PFT’s are no real solution, just cynical a political band-aid to keep the opposition on the back-foot.
So it would seem that with a status quo approach to sanitation, cities are fundamentally unable to deliver effective sanitation services to their constituents. Decision-makers get focused on technology, and few give serious considerations to reforming the system. If ever there was a challenge which required a ‘systemic’ response rather than just a technology response, this is it.
A systems approach to sanitation might start with function – dignity, safety and health. Then it might consider resource cycles: the water cycle, treatment demands, nutrient availability (and potential use), durability and privacy. It might demand a solution that is cyclical, as there is no ‘away’ for waste to be sent, and no resource to carry it there (being disconnected from conventional water infrastructure too). It might also consider input from all the stakeholders – professionals, entrepreneurs, citizens, health departments and civil society (I’m sure there are others too).
Given the inherent limitations of informal settlements spatially, a permanent solution that meets the requirements of private, hygienic and safe is necessarily independent of conventional sewer infrastructure. This means that we are in the territory of dry-toilet systems (composting toilets), bio-digesters or wet-toilet systems with stand-alone bio-mechanical water treatment (or the band-aid PFT solution).
Part 2 tomorrow.

This post forms part of a week curating thought, articles, and views on the sanitation situation, in Cape Town, and in the developing world.  The article originally appeared at the blog of Richard Palmer, The Pointy End, on Sunday, 7 July 2013.