World Toilet Day

Personal hygiene and sanitation is and has always been an important component of everyday life. However, with the ongoing COVID 19 crisis, the need to increase our overall awareness and to protect ourselves and all those around us is as important as ever.

In light of World Toilet Day on the 19th November, the WISA Young Water Professionals (YWP) hosted a webinar to aid in spreading awareness regarding sanitation and hygiene. This webinar included a dialogue between seven exceptional educators and members of the state who shared their own insight regarding the challenges we face today regarding this important matter.

The YWP National Lead, Ashton Busani welcomed all to the webinar with a quote from the great Nelson Mandela; 

“Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breath-taking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.”

Ms Lusanda Agbasi (Department of Water and Sanitation) opened up the discussion with a presentation on the role of non-sewered sanitation systems for sustainable inclusive sanitation in South Africa. In her presentation, it was noted that only 83.4 % of households in South Africa have access to sanitation, but that the levels of sanitation vary greatly from province to province with Western Cape leading in terms of widespread access, while Mpumalanga still has some way to go. She reminded us that it is part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that everyone has access to appropriate water and sanitation by 2030 and that in order for us to meet this goal, it is important that we understand the problem from the point of view of all stakeholders and institutions and make a collaborative effort to effect change.

Following on was Ms Lungi Zuma (eThekwini Water and Sanitation) who, in responding to a question from the audience, asserted that while eThekwini municipality is at the forefront of providing appropriate sanitation facilities and that the Municipality has partnered with several public and private institutions, as well as other municipalities. Within these partnerships, they host workshops, as well as stakeholder engagement meetings to share their knowledge.

Mrs Themba Sibaya (Gugulethu Primary School) further added that the eThekwini municipality has partnered with the Gugulethu Primary school to aid in improving the water and sanitation levels within the community. This was greatly needed, as the school initially had a significant shortage of sanitation facilities.

An extremely innovative solution was developed for this school which included several new toilet units, as well as a solar panel. The toilets were installed with an emphasis on recycling, as the actual units allow for separation of urine and solid waste and save water in the process. In addition to this, the solar panels that were installed are helping to reduce the electricity usage of the school. She noted the immense benefit that the students have experienced from the implementation of the project.

It is important for us to understand that poor sanitation and hygiene is not only an issue pertaining to South Africa. Mr Arun Kumar (Pollution Research Group, UKZN) provided insights into the issues that India is currently facing in terms of water and sanitation, referencing the Swachh Bharat Mission, which is a Government run initiative that was started in 2014, which is focussed on eliminating open defecation and improving solid waste management in India.

Since the onset of the mission, an extremely impressive 62 million individual house toilets and roughly 6 million community and public toilets have been built.

Further insights into sustainable sanitation solutions and their impact on users from a South African perspective was provided by Ms Tapuwa Sahondo (Pollution Research Group, UKZN) who added that 31% of people worldwide use sanitation that is not connected to sewers. She noted that significant investment is still required to make leaps forwards. 

Currently UKZN are operating pilot plants of innovative sanitation solutions to test their efficiency. Of these pilot plants, several backend systems were presented, all of which had a large emphasis on decentralized water and wastewater treatment, as well as recycling of water that we would usually deem to be waste products. In addition, the generation of electricity through microbial fuel cells and biogas production is also a main priority.

From a user perspective, it was noted that these systems are no different that regular flush toilets, as the front end is very similar. Dr Samuel Getahun (Pollution Research Group, Ymgeni Water) followed on from this and added to Ms Sahondo’s remarks regarding non sewered systems, confirming that energy production and water conservation are amongst the driving factors influencing the innovation of new technologies.

Dr Getahun spoke of a circular sanitation economy whereby we close the nutrient loop and reuse the nutrients that we excrete instead of flushing them down the toilet where we then cannot harvest their useful resources. It was noted in his presentation that the waste products from 80 people could be used to fertilized up to one hectare. 

The main challenges that we face in benefitting from waste reuse are improving social acceptance or recycled waste products, pharmaceutical contaminants, unclear business models (As these needs to either make or save money to be viable) and changing policies to allow for broader freedoms regarding controlled waste reuse.

And finally, Ms Naomi Korir (Sanivation) shared the sanitation challenges and success that she has experienced with Sanivation in Kenya. She noted that roughly 10% of waste in Africa is treated and notable challenges in Kenya are a lack of self-sustaining (and cost effective) alternative solutions, inefficient budgets and low social acceptance.

Sanivation deals primary with fecal treatment and reuse and has helped to treat waste material for tens of thousands of individuals across Kenya. According to Ms Korir, Sanivation is currently at the forefront of creating helpful, innovate solutions to waste management.

In conclusion, this webinar has taught us that while great leaps have been made in terms of sanitation in South Africa, especially in large Metros like eThekwini, South Africa still a long way to go to meet the SDG of universal access to sanitation by 2030, with continued innovation and collaboration, both local and international, being critical in the near future if this goal is to be realised.