MALAWI: In Praise of Dry Sanitation

Global Geopolitics & Political Economy / IPS

By Claire Ngozo

LILONGWE, Mar 9, 2011 (IPS) – At its best it is waterless, odorless, eminently affordable and has a rich fertiliser as byproduct, yet for residents of Malawi’s informal settlements, dry sanitation retains a whiff of the unwanted.

As much as two-thirds of Malawi’s two-million strong urban population live in slum conditions without proper toilets. In densely-crowded Lilongwe townships like Mtsiriza, Mgona, or Senti, dozens of people often share a single convenience.

Alex Makande of Mgona township lives in a compound with 83 people. "It is a terrible situation. Mornings are even worse. People queue up to go to the toilet and sometimes we have to ask to use toilets in nearby compounds which are not as crowded."

Access to pipe-borne water is limited in areas like this; sewerage mainlines generally non-existent.

Monalissa Nkhonjera, a communications and learning officer for international NGO WaterAid, explains that an average compound in the shanty townships has eight households, but there is usually only one pit latrine.

WaterAid is working in Lilongwe’s slums, implementing an appropriate, water-sensible solution. "We are promoting the construction of eco-san latrines with slabs as a cover for the pit and with either a tin or grass-thatched roof. The walls are made of baked or unbaked bricks."

The eco-sanitation latrines have two pits. Household ash is scattered into the latrine after every visit to the toilet to minimise smell and speed up decomposition. After one pit fills, use switches to the other, and the waste in the full pit is given time to fully decompose into a rich, safe manure.

Unloved facilities

But Manesi Phiri of Senti, another informal settlement on the outskirts of Lilongwe where WaterAid is promoting them, remains unsatisfied.

"Flush toilets are more convenient. All you need is to flush out the excreta after a visit to the toilet. Pit latrines compound the low status of us poor people. They are very demeaning," she told IPS.

Pit latrines, she said, are a marker of poverty, whereas flush toilets are a status symbol. Phiri also said communities in urban townships do not have much use for the fertiliser that is produced in the eco-sanitation latrines.

"We do not have gardens in our communities and we do not cultivate any crops so we do not need the fertiliser. We cannot sell this kind of fertiliser to city dwellers; they use chemical fertiliser for their kitchen gardens as they find the fertiliser from the latrines disgusting."

Phiri concedes the fertiliser from the eco-san toilets is free of any odor and looks like any other compost; but she insists that people are put off just thinking of where it comes from.

In Lilongwe’s informal settlements, people are certainly not rejecting eco-sanitation out of hand, though Makande would also prefer a flush toilet: "But this is just a dream for now. We have to continue to use the pit latrines at our disposal and the eco-san latrines are better than the conventional latrines so we must adopt them," said the man, who works as a night guard in Area 10, one of Lilongwe’s affluent areas.

Should anyone flush?

The poor have limited choice. But with climate change threatening the water supplies of cities not only in Malawi but across the Southern Africa region, a comprehensive plan for urban areas might need to see wealthy people adopt composting toilets.

A toilet uses anywhere from six to 11 litres per flush – the fortunate 640,000 who have access to flush toilets in Malawi each represent a much greater strain on aging water systems than their counterparts in the slums. Millions – hundreds of millions of litres of water are effectively squandered flushing waste into a sewage network, at the end of which it needs further treatment before it can be safely released into the country’s waterways.

In Area 43, one of Lilongwe’s most affluent neighbourhoods, IPS found Richard Gulumba has an eco-san latrine in his backyard. He had it constructed for use during Lilongwe’s frequent water outages.

"But my family and I still find it hard to use a latrine. It reminds me of life in the village and that is not desirable. I grew up poor and I do not want to be reminded the experiences I went through and using a pit latrine is one thing I do not want to do now that I can afford better things like a flush toilet," said Gulumba.

Like his wealthy counterparts across Africa, perhaps even the world, Gulumba is likely unaware of the many fancier cousins to the twin-chambered latrines being built in the slums. Though prejudice against dry sanitation is pretty widespread, more upmarket waterless toilets can be found from Mexico to Canada to Sweden to Australia.

Stylish latrines

The South African company ECOSAN manufactures a self-contained dry sanitation unit that cleverly uses the action of opening and closing the lid to drive a screw that moves waste into a cleverly ventilated chamber where it turns into compost without further ado. Australia’s Nature Loo provides a system with exchangeable composting chambers and a fan that ensures proper oxygen flow to speed the breakdown.

Inside the house: a "warm white" pedestal with a "honey oak" seat… even the fussiest guests won’t panic until they can’t find a handle to flush.

WaterAid’s Nkhonjera says composting latrines, which prevent pollution of groundwater, are the best option for slum dwellers and rural communities. "These areas are informal settlements and they do not have access to running water. Putting up flush toilets will not be realistic."

If Southern Africa’s wealthier city dwellers also considered the best use of available water, dry sanitation could take up a more exalted place as a solution to growing water stress.

All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service, 2011.

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