The Neoliberal Loo

Sanitation occasionally needs our attention. Usually it’s when there’s a water shortage. Today it’s because toilet ("loo") technicians are having a major summit here in Durban, South Africa.

Ironically, those who specialise in water-borne sanitation don’t want some of us to use their product, a conclusion we’ll explain below. The sensible old adage – "If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down" – was initiated (we understand) in a blunt New York City water-saving campaign during an early 1970s drought.

Conservation is all well and good during explicit water shortages. But that’s not generally the case here in even mostly-arid South Africa, given that human consumption of raw water amounts to less than 12 percent of the total, of which more than half is used to refill swimming pools, in non-indigenous gardens, and to otherwise sate rich/middle-income hedonistic desires. Poor black people get less than 5 percent of the raw water.

The same superficially "commonsense" yet profoundly unfair philosophy – i.e., poor folk must be given only water-free pit latrines – permeates the African Sanitation (Africasan) conference now underway at the Luthuli International Conference Centre, led by "prince of sanitation"  (as he calls himself and colleagues) Piers Cross, long-term World Banker.

The Bank is brutally explicit about sanitation financing in last month’s "International Year of Sanitation" newsletter propaganda: "Africa’s sanitation should and must be developed and funded by Africa." No Northern subsidies allowed, because "Both governments and households respond to financial incentives and client-focused mechanisms for cost recovery and contribution." (The Dutch government sponsors this particularly nasty neoliberal ideology with generous subsidies.)

Several hundred experts have come to Durban to talk toilet cost-recovery this week. With one exception, our own attempts to enter the ICC along with civil society colleagues were deterred by the $250 entrance fee; there were only a few passes given to community groups.

If allowed in, a civil society swarm would raise the essential problem across the continent: underfunding. Toilets and bulk wastewater pipes dug down out of sight and mind aren’t sexy for donors – like the noxious British Department for International Development – to show off to politicians and constituents.

Moreover, for the last quarter century, the pressures of World Bank structural adjustment programs broke African governments’ ability to meet the citizenry’s needs, even basic water/sanitation infrastructure.

Most African states are run by venal elites who don’t care where their poorest residents defecate; witness Durban’s provision of a handful of public loos to thousands in each of the city’s burgeoning shack settlements.

So in spite of the threat to public health in the AIDS era, a dangerous conventional wisdom emerged: poor and working people should learn to consume far less water. Self-help for "total sanitation" (including hygiene education against "open defecation") replaces state responsibility. The market rules: if you can’t pay, you can’t pee or poo in comfort. The excellent off-Broadway play "Urinetown" captures this in fiction; reality is yet more surreal.

With populist twists, UN Water Task Force on Sanitation coordinator Clarissa Brocklehurst explains: "Simple subsidisation is not enough to lure the poor to build toilets. We need to create supporting policies, develop low cost options, mobilise communities and even involve the private sector."

Speaking to InterPress Service last November at a similar conference in India, Jon Lane of the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council gives up the game: "The need is to take sanitation technology from being subsidy-driven, which it so far is, and make it market-driven."

This then is the neoliberal sanitation strategy. In reality, the problem is not the subsidy per se, but its inadequate size. Typically, only a tiny capital grant (around $100) is provided to build an "improved" pit latrine.

Crucial operating and maintenance subsidies are practically never supplied. When pits need emptying they’re not (because there’s no funding for it). When nearby communal water taps break for lack of diesel fuel for borehole pumps or cracked piping, they stay broken.

South Africa was, unfortunately, not immune from the pressure of neoliberalism, well before the country adopted its homegrown structural adjustment policy in 1996. From the early 1990s, influential institutions – the Development Bank of Southern Africa, Mvula Trust and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) – adopted the World Bank strategy, which hinges on persuading poor people not to use water for flushing.

When persuasion doesn’t work, officials simply impose dry toilets like Ventilated Improved Pitlatrines ("VIPs") on very impoverished people, who are invariably black.

The worst of this philosophy was the apartheid regime’s filthy "bucket system" – people poo into a pail which is collected early each morning – for South Africa’s "temporary sojourners": i.e. all black people living in cities. Water was a weapon in the white government’s arsenal of oppression and control.

But what goes around sometimes comes around. Mike Muller, former DWAF director general, points out that "the buckets, especially when not emptied by inefficient municipalities, provide community activists with an effective and ready-made weapon of protest, which has been used with substantial effect in protests about poor service delivery."

Today, nearly 14 years after apartheid ended, hundreds of thousands of people still suffer buckets, in spite of Mbeki’s promise that by 2007 we’d be rid of the 19th century system.

Shockingly, there are still 9270 bucket latrines in Durban, along with 148,688 unventilated pit latrines and 41,880 chemical toilets. Lack of adequate sewage disposal, combined with heavy rains, hot temperatures and accidental spilling of these buckets, together create a perfect storm of infectious diarrhea, other gastrointestinal disorders, and worm infestations – fatal threats to so many HIV  people.

Worse, alleged sanitation "improvements" since 1994 include mass installation of VIPs. As veteran sanitation practitioner Kathy Eales notes, "Many VIPs are now full and unusable. In many areas, VIPs are now called ‘full-ups’. Some pits were too small, or were fully sealed."

According to Eales, "South Africa’s household sanitation policy is grossly inadequate. It speaks primarily to dry systems, and does not clarify roles and responsibilities around what to do when pits are full.  National government under-estimated the scale of technical support required."

Given the state’s white elephant priorities – an industrial development zone for another smelter ("Coega"), the elite Gautrain for rich people, nuclear reactors, once-off sports stadia for the 2010 soccer World Cup, and megadams that drain water from poor areas – who believes the ruling African National Congress will rid the society of the dreaded buckets and pit latrines?

And with the rate of community protest doubling to 30 per day on average from 2005-07, according to the SA Police Service, who believes we’ll have peace – without sanitation justice?

Two innovations discussed enthusiastically at Afrisan may make matters worse. Sowetans are protesting "condominal shallow sewage" systems introduced by the French water privatiser Suez, which ran Joburg Water from 2001 until they were expelled in 2006. Victims of this experiment have no water cisterns above the loo, much thinner pipes, and lower gravity to get excrement down and out to the mains.

Hence they clog not by accident but by design. Then, according to 12-step instructions provided by Suez, women are meant to stick their hands (with gloves, to be sure) into the pipes to remove the shit by hand.

Second, in Durban, a post-apartheid bucket system – the Urinary Diversion (UD) toilet – is being foisted involuntarily on 60 000 households. With their double-pits, separating urine and feces so as to speed decomposistion, the UDs are theoretically useful in water-scarce rural areas. But Durban? (Especially with our humidity, which means excrement stays damp and pathogen-ridden.)

Earlier this month, a naïve reporter at Science magazine lavishly praised Durban municipal water manager Neil Macleod’s promise that within two years, "everyone will have access to a proper toilet."

But that includes the replacement of apartheid-era pit toilets with "the best solution", UDs, which are credited with "a 30% reduction in diarrheal diseases compared with similar households using pit toilets", as our university colleague Stephen Knight told Science. (Of course the comparison should instead be to decent indoor waterborne sanitation, but when serving poor black people, chef Macleod seems to have removed that item from the menu.)

Yet experience in the communities we know best (peri-urban Inanda) is unsatisfactory. UDs have internal buckets that require emptying. No training was given on how to deal with feces, except to dump it in the garden "for fertilizing your veggies". Many people are repelled by use of human excrement (compared to cow-dung) as fertilizer, because of the many diseases surrounding them. The burden of cleaning is left to women.  Creative opportunities for bio-gas are also foreclosed by UDs. Many have become mere storerooms or are permanently locked because of the smell.  Councilors are useless when the UDs cease functioning.

Indeed, municipal neglect of sewage is apparently widespread. The city’s crucial Umbilo River is badly polluted because Macleod didn’t manage industrial wastewater pipes properly, as a Durban Mercury newspaper scoop last month showed.

For example, thousands of dead fish in the harbor (Africa’s largest) last Christmas were victims of a sewage pipe rupture caused by polymer blockages in the mains. City manager Mike Sutcliffe withheld a scientific study about the massacre for weeks, perhaps because it confirms the corporate culture of rampant eco-vandalism in South Durban, which he has nurtured thanks to repeated attacks on environmentalists there. Belatedly, the city will sue a plastics company for damages, but the two key state officials have been extremely evasive.

Sutcliffe and Macleod are not the only ones to blame. Faizal Bux of Durban University of Technology’s Centre for Water and Wastewater Technology remarks, "The city council needs to be held accountable for the current status of the Umbilo River" because of consistent underfunding of maintenance.

To solve the sanitation crisis doesn’t require rocket science. No one at the ICC can disagree with these aspirations:

* we need appropriate health and hygiene awareness and behaviour (especially for policy-makers and municipal officials prone to disconnect poor people from water supplies, hence threatening all of us, as South Africa’s 2000 cholera pandemic tragically proved);

* we need systems for disposing of human excreta, household waste water and refuse, acceptable and affordable to the users, safe, hygienic and easily accessible and which does not have an unacceptable impact on the environment; and

* we need a toilet facility for each household.

But as Mike Muller confessed in a 2007 article for the journal Progress in Development Studies, "the expansion of sanitation services to the unserved is slowing." He specifically blamed SA finance minister Trevor Manuel’s 2006 Division of Revenue Act because of its "clear incentives for municipalities not to extend services to the unserved."

To change this we need new genuinely pro-poor policies, and more state funding and policies that get poor people appropriate supplies of waterborne sanitation, including for micro biodigesters (a sophisticated septic tank) that convert excrement into cooking gas in off-grid rural areas. And in turn we need much more political pressure, not more neoliberalism from AfricaSan, the World Bank, the UN, British DFID, multinational corporate NGOs like Water Aid and Plan, SA government or Durban officials who want poor people to cut their water consumption.

If we don’t get it, government’s policy reversion to low-quality, unmaintained VIP latrines, chemical toilets, UDs and condominial sewers means that apartheid’s sanitation indignities will reconstitute huge social divisions – but not along ethnic lines alone, also according to the placement of sewage lines.

And not only will sanitation suffering continue. One day, a government with decent values will have to put in proper systems at much greater cost because it will mean undoing the damage being done today by those men tucked away behind the $250 entrance gates to AfricaSan.

The authors are researchers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society (http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs).

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