Dignity, Sanitation and a Lack of Water

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Wednesday, 17 January 2018
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This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 13 June 2016:

"No dignity has been restored through giving people houses which are not in good condition‚ first‚ and second‚ they don’t have a flushing toilet" – Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), at The Gathering on 10 June 2016.

These words sent a chill down my spine, similar to when there is war talk and a call to violence so shortly before an election.  Of course I agree with Mr Malema that people need to be provided with adequate housing, particularly as the money to build those houses come from taxes.  Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses must be built optimally and to last.  Nor do I have a problem with the provision of adequate sanitation.  The lack of access to sanitation has an impact on other basic rights including rights to dignity, education, health, safety and the environment.  Open defecation, bucket toilets and poorly constructed pit latrines remain an immense problem in South Africa.  I am not at all blind to the fact that those areas in South Africa which lack adequate sanitation, mirror Apartheid spatial geography: pre-dominantly black and poverty-stricken townships and former homelands, as well as informal settlements. Nor am I blind to the fact that the lack of adequate sanitation affect the most disadvantaged in society, with a disproportionate negative impact on vulnerable groups, such as women, children and people living with disabilities; and that the lack of adequate sanitation is the point where inequalities between different social groups are starkly evident.  Nor am I blind to the fact that these very social groupings are by the most part the EFF’s constituents. 

What left me ice cold was the reference to “flush toilets”.  South Africa is a water scarce country, which is currently gripped in a paralyzing drought, with many towns already run dry.  This big thirst gripping the country now, is bound to continue even when the rains return.  Currently about 98% of South Africa’s available water resources are already allocated across various sectors, and scientists warn that continued population and economic growth, combined with climate change, could result in a water deficit of between 2% and 13% by 2025 (a mere nine years away).  In some parts of the country there is currently not enough water available to meet the needs of citizens, agriculture and industry, and to sustain the country’s ecological baseline.

A further problem is that while South Africa boasts a system providing access to some of the cleanest water in the world, the available infrastructure for the delivery of water and sanitation is either lacking completely in some areas, or in other areas, in a poor state due to the age of the infrastructure and lack of adequate maintenance and management of existing systems.  More and more residents are complaining about the quality of the water coming from taps due to the poor condition of waste and water treatment plants.  The water crises is affecting millions; the sanitation crises, millions more.  How often does one walk through a township or an informal settlement and see raw sewage pouring into streets?  Quite often; and this has severe health implications for the affected communities and as we know, such communities often have limited, if any, access to adequate health care as well.

It is not in dispute that adequate and decent sanitation is a basic human right enshrined in the South African Constitution, and that it is essential for dignity and good health, but must it be water-borne sanitation in a country where we have limited infrastructure and water resources?  Why do we not aim for sustainable sanitation?

As water becomes scarcer, and the infrastructure needs to be repaired or rebuilt, so also will the costs of water increase steadily.  While Mr Malema would prefer that no poor person pay for essential services such as water, it is a bit of a pipe dream, because money is required to provide services and run efficient local governments.  Even with complete and radical wealth re-distribution (another pipe dream at this time), at some stage residents must pay for services delivered, otherwise the system will collapse.  Already the South African government provides, where there is infrastructure, 6000 litres of water and 50 kWh electricity free per household per month.  And where does that water go?  A 2005 study found that most of that water in low-income households is flushed down the toilet.

Water Use in Households (2005)

Low-income households:  

Toilets = 73%

Baths & Showers = 19%

Washing machine = NA

Other (cooking, washing dishes and clothes, drinking, etc) = 8%

Mid to High-Income Household

Toilets = 37%

Baths & Showers = 32%

Washing machine = 17%

Other: eg. cooking, washing dishes and clothes, drinking, etc = 14%

 (Source: Water – How is it used at home, HE Jacobs, LC Geustyn and BF Loubser, 2005)

Isn’t it time that we provide South Africans the option of urine-diverting dry toilets (or similar technology), which falls under the basic sanitation options provided for in the constitutional rights?  Why are these toilets not automatically included in RDP houses?  If we can include solar water heaters in RDP houses, certainly it is just a short step further to also equip these houses with this acceptable, sustainable, affordable sanitation option?

Why are we gambling with our country’s survival (yes, because without water we are all doomed) by demanding for unsustainable sanitation options?  It is certainly not too much to ask of responsible politicians to choose their words more carefully and to think a little bit further than the next five years?

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