Zambia: Toilet Crisis in Lusaka's Chaisa Slums

Lusaka — "It is a shame," said Idah Tembo.

The elderly widow was referring to the lack of proper and adequate toilets in Zambia's Chaisa Township, where she lives.

Ms Tembo and her eight-member household have to use a neighbour's pit latrine because her own collapsed after heavy rains a year ago. The poor widow cannot afford to build another toilet.

But in this sprawling township, Ms Tembo's story is not unique. She shares the same rundown toilet with 19 other households.

The same pit latrine also serves as a washroom where the neighbours bathe from.

"There is no dignity here. Thankfully, the owner of the pit latrine is understanding and has allowed us to use it free of charge as long as we help in cleaning it. The best could be if we have our own toilet as a family, but we currently cannot afford to have one dug because I have no money," complained Ms Tembo.

Accesses to good sanitation is a basic human right. Actually, access to clean water and sanitation is goal number six on the list of Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations for the global community.

Despite Chaisa being located barely five kilometres from the centre of modernity in Zambia's capital, Lusaka there are far fewer toilets in the township, forcing residents to resort to unconventional methods to dispose of human waste.

It is not uncommon to find human waste in plastic bags thrown on top of roofs.

And in the night, many residents dig holes in their backyards, or wherever they can find space to squat.

But in the wake of one of the biggest cholera outbreaks in Lusaka in recent history, such methods only add to the threat of contamination.

Close to 3,000 people suffered from cholera in Lusaka, with over 70 deaths. The city is still recovering from the outbreak.

In this same slummy neighbourhood, not far from Ms Tembo's house, lives Idah Mumba and her family. She, too, has no toilet of her own, but has to share one pit latrine with three families.

Ms Mumba brews Munkoyo, a fermented non-alcoholic beverage, which is popular among the township dwellers. So popular is her drink that some customers come from across the township. This is despite the unsanitary surroundings where she operates from.

Some of the customers told me Ms Mumba makes the best Munkoyo, so they cannot stop coming to drink despite the lack of a proper toilet at her home.

Ms Mumba, however, is not happy about the lack of a proper toilet. Recently, she decided to hire some people to dig a pit latrine for her customers, but her landlord could not let her.

"The landlord is not fair and does not care about the welfare of the tenants because the lack of a pit latrine is known to everyone. Yet when I made an initiative to have one dug, it was an issue and the project was stopped. As tenants, we deserve better," she complained.

Ms Mumba said some of her customers use a makeshift bathroom, which she shares with other families as a toilet, but only to do 'number one' there.

Another neighbour, who shares the same bathroom, complained at the lack of concern by the landlord towards their welfare.

"It's rough. In the beginning, we just used to ask from the neighbours but after a while, it just becomes uncomfortable because you cannot control the number of times you have to use the toilet. So what happens is that during the day, we ask around when need arises and at night, we walk to a nearby bar," said Dina Chibutu, another resident.

Margaret Mpatuka shares one pit latrine with 20 other people from three different families, but the pit is now full.

"This same pit latrine has two purposes - toilet and bathroom - but it is full and the smell is unbearable," she said. "We had a pit latrine when I moved here in 2001 but it got full and this is the one which the landlord had dug for us. It is also full. And understandably so because there are three families here, including children."

The lack of proper and adequate toilets in the township is giving Chaisa Ward 20 councillor Ruth Phiri sleepless nights, especially which one of the contributing factors to the spread of cholera is contaminated water from shallow wells, which many residents were using.

Most of the wells were situated near pit latrines.

Ms Phiri said it was a challenge convincing people to desist from using water from the shallow wells, but she said people's attitudes are now changing because of the cholera outbreak.

Most of the wells have now been buried by authorities.

"In Chaisa, the community had 300 shallow wells but we managed to have 250 buried. It was not easy as many residents relied on shallow wells," she said.

The Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit is now providing safe drinking water.

"We have also embarked on drainage cleaning and we have engaged about 30 workers who are cleaning the drainage," Ms Phiri says.

However, the issue of toilets is still outstanding.

"We are still conducting a survey concerning the number of toilets in the area, but from the information we have so far, it is safe to say that majority of the people or households in this area have no toilets, not even bad ones. And those existing pit latrines are full. It's terrible," she said.

She said majority of the houses in Chaisa are not owned by people living there, and so they don't care about sanitation that much.

"Every few people own these properties; 90 percent of the houses here are owned by people who do not even live here, they just come here to buy property and quickly erect a house with no toilet or bathroom and lease it," she said.

Ms Phiri said all the relevant authorities and policy makers are aware about the desperate situation that people live in.

The councillor and Ward Development Committees are now trying to improve the sanitary conditions of the residents.

"We have been having meetings on sanitation and hygiene with the communities about this dire situation. We called churches, marketeers and communities to join us in the clean-up of our surroundings," Ms Phiri said.

Minister of Water Development, Sanitation and Environmental Protection Lloyd Kaziya said Government is aware of the sanitation problem in a number of townships in the city, which has aggravated the cholera situation.

"The only solution to decent sanitary facilities is to upgrade townships such as Chaisa, Chibolya and George. We are fully aware of the situation of low levels of hygiene in these unplanned townships, which is a contributing factor to waterborne diseases," Mr Kaziya said.

As it stands, Government will continually battle with the cholera outbreak unless the situation such as that in Chaisa is addressed.

This article was first published by the Zambia Daily Mail.

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