Flushing wasteful toilet technology

19 August 2002

An elderly woman turning on a communal tap for the first time, those first gulps of sparkling water taken by a tiny barefoot child . these images undoubtedly offer more inspiring photo opportunities than those of a community member disposing of human waste in an environmentally safe way, or using a newly erected pit latrine for the first time.

Just getting the lowdown on human waste disposal, or worse, what happens when it goes badly wrong, is enough to put one off one’s lunch.

Perhaps this is partly why sanitation has always been treated as a “Cinderella subject” or “water’s poor cousin”, as Mvula Trust’s national sanitation operations manager, Richard Holden, puts it. Yet Holden, who literally lives the subject every day, is clearly hardened to the “yuk” factor. He has more words to describe the phenomenon of “human waste” than Eskimos have for snow.

Given that one in two South Africans has no access to adequate sanitation facilities – either no facilities, or an unsafe pit or bucket toilet – there is clearly no place for a “yuk” response from people helping to address the sanitation problems of the poor.

Those of us with daily access to clean and efficiently flushing toilets don’t think twice about the hazards of unsafe sanitation, which include diseases like cholera and dysentery, and environmental pollution. Cholera outbreaks tend to receive widespread media attention and speedy, crisis-management responses.

Less talked about but just as deadly is acute diarrhoea, which is a direct consequence of poor water and sanitation provision. Diarrhoea kills more than 50 000 South African children every year and affects millions more. HIV and Aids sufferers with compromised immunity are particularly vulnerable to diseases related to poor sanitation.

Seemingly less serious sanitation-related ailments like scabies and intestinal worms are also severely debilitating – the latter can stunt mental and physical growth and even result in death.

Mvula Trust
Mvula Trust, the country’s largest water and sanitation NGO, is keen to punt a holistic approach to water and sanitation . Increasingly, “water provision” is the term used to refer both to the provision of clean water and sanitation services. The two go hand in hand.

As Holden says, “Too often water is provided without looking at the safe disposal of human excrement. You then end up with polluted water supplies.”

Mvula Trust is managing and implementing Department of Water Affairs and Forestry sanitation programmes in six provinces; has helped over 10 000 households to improve their sanitation facilities; has worked in over 500 villages; has implemented sanitation projects in over 100 schools; and has disbursed over R35-million to support sanitation services in South Africa.

Although a water-born sewage system – where flushable toilets pipe water through underground pipes to sewage depots long distances away – may seem preferable, high maintenance and running costs render this option inappropriate for many communities.

When blockages occur, the health and environmental hazards resulting from sewage overflow and the costs of unblocking – R8 000 per day to hire a tanker to suction the pipes – compound the problems. Badly managed sewage gets pumped into rivers, where it becomes everyone else’s problem further downstream, often contaminating drinking water.

Pit latrines, urine diversion toilets
Increasingly, Mvula Trust and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry are looking at dry sanitation options – either pit latrines or urine diversion toilets. “We try to look at appropriate solutions so that communities don’t end up with huge problems down the line”, says Holden.

Pit latrines or “long drops” are not always pleasant to use, but are often the most appropriate solution: if well managed, they are not harmful to the environment or users.

One of Mvula Trust’s ventilated improved pit toilets

Ventilated improved pit toilets, as they are now called, allow the urine to drain off, enabling the faeces to dry up and decompose safely. Problems arise, however, if the latrines are sunk into the ground water, causing contamination.

Few have heard of “urine diversion” toilets, but these are likely to become a regular phenomenon in many homes in the years to come. Mvula Trust has so far introduced 2 500 in the country, and “the project is gaining momentum”, says Holden.

The toilet, which has been adapted from a Mexican design, separates faeces and urine. The urine is diverted into a special pot in the toilet (meaning that men have to sit down to urinate) and siphoned underground through a thin pipe, where it soaks into the ground, fertilising the soil.

The waste collects in a 25-litre bucket under the toilet and is treated each time with a mix of ash and soil which helps to dehydrate it. Once a month the bucket is emptied and either burnt or collected into a compost bin, where it is treated with more soil, ash and other waste like kitchen organics (fruit and vegetable peels). It can then be used as compost in the garden or vegetable patch.

“The urine diversion toilet is a new concept which calls for new behaviour and new practices like composting, so a lot of support must be given when it is introduced,” says Holden, who uses one in his own home in Yeoville, Johannesburg.

The toilet offers the same standard of living as that enjoyed in the suburbs, but cuts his water bill (to about R34 per month) and enriches his garden soil, he says. His family toilet is now a demonstration site for the many fieldworkers employed by Mvula Trust to educate communities on safe sanitation options.

“It’s the best form of advocacy,” says Holden. “You can’t just tell people about their options, you have to show them the real thing.”

It’s also important, he adds, to demonstrate that one is using the same technology that one is trying to advance. Otherwise people feel patronised and “see right through you,” he adds.

Half of Johannesburg and Durban’s populations are without access to water-born sewage. These cities’ municipalities have realised that they cannot afford to continue installing and maintaining water-born systems and are beginning to offer pit latrines or urine diversion options instead.

Toilets for both options can be made (using fibre-glass moulds) by the communities themselves, thus stimulating local economic development.

“It’s vital,” says Holden, “not to impose decisions on people, but to allow them to choose from the options available.”

Philippa Garson has written for over a decade, on a range of issues, for some of the country’s leading newspapers. The former editor of The Teacher, the national newspaper of the education profession, she was named South Africa’s Education Journalist of the Year in 1996.

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