Cape Town — Access to toilets for Cape Town's growing urban poor is a regular flash-point, featuring angry demonstrations and hurled allegations by competing political factions.
The city - and the Western Cape province in which it is located - are governed by members of the Democratic Alliance. Most of the South Africa's people live in areas governed by the ruling African National Congress, which won over 60 percent of the votes in recent national elections.
But whoever is in charge, South Africa shares a practical and political headache with urban areas around the world: providing sanitation to an influx of people, primarily from poor rural communities. "On current evidence," writes Richard Palmer in a blog post carried on the Future Cape Town website, "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."
A report by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), published in March, doesn't leave much to the imagination. According to researchers, members of 1.4 million South African households don't have access to sanitation and are therefore forced to relieve themselves in the open. The bulk of them live in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, North West and the Eastern Cape. Download the report [PDF]
Additionally, 26 percent of all South African households, 3.8 million in total, only have access to below-standard sanitation infrastructure. These facilities have crumbled and deteriorated to such extent that they can be considered unfit to be used.
"It is estimated that an amount of R44.75 billion (USD 4,2 billion) is required to provide basic services to the un-served and to refurbish and upgrade existing infrastructure," the researchers say. "This excludes financing for bulk infrastructure requirements for the provision of new services, as well as to address the upgrading of households in informal settlements."
One of the informal settlements where dignified sanitation is a more or less non-existent phenomenon is Makhaza, situated on the outskirts of Cape Town's township of Khayelitsha. The area's toilet shortage is vast and has been making headlines for the past years.
In 2009, the municipality of Cape Town had erected 1200 toilets without roofs and walls in this informal settlement. After protests from residents, the city erected corrugated iron enclosures around the loos, which torn down by protestors led by the ANC Youth League in 2010. The loos were again enclosed in 2011.
Edna Titus of Breadline Africa, an organisation which converts shipping containers into libraries, class rooms and other useful community structures, first realised how bad the situation was in 2007. Instead of standing at the sideline, Titus decided to get involved.
"I was visiting a day care centre in Makhaza, when I saw little kids leaving their class room shack and running to another shack, in the pouring rain," she recalls. "The principal told me the children were going to the toilet. When she showed me the toilet shack, I was shocked. I saw a plank with three holes and simple buckets underneath. The corrugated roof was leaking. There was no water for hand washing. It was terrible."
Breadline Africa then decided to, for the first time, convert a container into a toilet facility. "Up until then, we only focused on libraries and such. This preprimary now has six toilets, three for girls and three for boys. There is running water, so they can was their hands. It makes such a big difference," Titus says. "Since then, we have erected various toilet containers in other needy communities across the country. From the feedback we are receiving, the impact is profound. Children for instance, are less sick and there are less cases of diarrhoea."
It is globally recognised that poor sanitation and childhood diarhea go hand in hand, often with fatal consequences. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, diarrhoeal diseases – often caused by dirty, unsafe water and inadequate sanitation – account for one in nine children worldwide, making diarhea the second leading cause of death among children under the age of five.
Some 1000km from Cape Town, in one of the remotest parts of the Eastern Cape province, the pupils of Three Crowns rural school have been benefiting from proper toilets or the past four years. Before these loos were installed, the youngsters had to use pit latrines which are considered unsafe and unhealthy.
Externally, the toilets look like any normal flush loos, with ceramic bowls and a flushing mechanism. However, what hides below the earth's surface is what makes this particular sanitation solution completely different from conventional infrastructure.
The school's toilets are connected to a so-called biodigester, an underground anaerobic, thus oxygen-free tank which digests organic material biologically and without the need of chemicals. Apart from human waste, the tank – comprising various chambers – also digests organic waste from the school's kitchen and vegetable garden.
The effluent inside the tank is sent from chamber to chamber; a process during which the sediment gets digested naturally while most pathogens are killed due to the non-existence of oxygen.
"The waste water that comes out at the other side of the biodigester is 98 percent pathogen free," explains Muna Lakhani, founder of The Institute for Zero Waste in Africa (IZWA). This organisation, which aims to find ways to reduce waste output through education and research, has been following the project for years.
"The waste water, which does not need to be chemically treated, furthermore contains all sorts of nutrients and is perfect for the irrigation of food gardens," he says. "The added benefit of the biodigester is that is generates methane, which can be captured. At the Three Crowns school, it is mainly used to cook school meals."
There are many more benefits to the system, which has been funded by the African Development Bank. Firstly, there are fewer cases illnesses among children. "You after all kill pathogens which are linked to diarrhoea," Lakhani says. "The toilets are also using less water due to water-saving mechanisms that have been installed. Less money is spent on fuel, as the methane produced by the biodigester is free of charge. A couple of jobs ave been created as these systems require maintenance. In Three Crowns, the water apart from irrigation is also used to grow algae, which are then fed to livestock or turned into compost."
There have been a few unforeseen benefits too, which has improved the lives of the female pupils. "Before the installation of the biodigester toilet system, many girls would miss at least a week out of every month during their menstruation," Lakhani says. "That is what happens when you don't have proper toilets. This has changed. This is probably one of the most important unforeseen changes for the better."
Sanitation experts are studying whether a solution that has produced benefits in areas remote from city services might also be at least a temporary solution for informal urban settlements unconnected to city services.