By Robert Erasmus, Managing Director at Sanitech
In South Africa, the use of pit latrines remains a prevalent human rights issue, infringing on every person’s right to life, dignity, and health, as well as their right to access water and adequate basic sanitation. Despite their unavoidable application in certain contexts, pit latrines pose numerous risks to life, health, and safety, particularly in schools and areas lacking proper sanitation infrastructure such as informal settlements, prompting efforts to eliminate their presence in the country. As far back as 2019, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) launched a campaign called Khusela, which means “to eradicate” in isiZulu, to abolish pit latrines by 2030. Given the extensive challenges related to sanitation infrastructure, eradicating pit latrines is going to take time, particularly in rural areas. Nonetheless, this human rights issue must be squarely addressed and that functional, sustainable alternatives to open pit latrines are given the proper prioritisation.
Pit latrines: the shocking numbers
From a sanitation perspective, there are 380 schools in South Africa with no running water. 3,392 schools still use pit latrines, which affects 34,489 teachers and 1,042,698 learners. While it is difficult to ascertain exact population figures, it is estimated that there are still four million pit latrines in use by communities throughout the country, of which only two million are Ventilated Improved Pit (VIP) latrines, while the remainder are ordinary pits with, or without covers. VIP latrines are a type of pit latrine that has a ventilation pipe that allows air to circulate through the pit, which helps to reduce odours and the breeding of flies. These latrines are also typically constructed with a more substantial exterior structure than ordinary pit latrines.
The use of pit latrines can be perilous, posing a safety risk, particularly for young children, females, and vulnerable individuals. Without proper maintenance or safety precautions, accidents such as falls, injuries, and even drownings occur. Pit latrines contribute to the spread of disease, posing a major health hazard to users and nearby residents, as inadequate waste management and poor sanitation practices contaminate the groundwater and soil, as well as nearby water sources which lead to the transmission of waterborne diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, and dysentery. Pit latrines often lack essential sanitation facilities, such as handwashing stations or proper waste disposal systems, which results in unhygienic environments, poor personal hygiene practices, and an elevated risk of infections and diseases.
For affected communities, the lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation has a significant impact on health and well-being. The lack of access to safe and hygienic sanitation facilities can lead to health problems, which can make it difficult for people to work and earn a living. The correlation between adequate sanitation and poverty is a complex issue, with several contributing factors. As such, it is important to address these factors to improve sanitation and ultimately reduce poverty.
Challenging to service
Pit latrines are used primarily in areas that do not have access to water. These gradually fill up over time, primarily with solid waste as most liquid waste evaporates or is absorbed into the soil. Originally estimated to last seven to ten years, these latrines often require maintenance in just two to three years due to the significant amount of additional waste they receive. Decisions must then be made to either close the latrine and dig a new hole or seek servicing, a challenging task that involves treating the solid waste to create a more liquid environment before using a honey sucker or vacuum tanker to extract and dispose of the waste in a treatment plant. The remote locations of many facilities add to the complexity of the process.
Seeking practical solutions and facing reality
This highlights the urgent need for practical solutions when addressing the challenges posed by pit latrines. To illustrate the practicalities, consider the sheer number of pit latrines – four million, with two million being VIPs and two million standards. Replacing all of these with waterborne sanitation is simply unfeasible in the short term, as this would require an additional one billion litres of water daily for flushing alone. This is currently an insurmountable obstacle in terms of water supply and treatment, considering the condition of existing waste treatment plants. The South African private sector has sought to find the most practical and effective way to address the critical issues of safety, environmental impact, and serviceability of these facilities. To make a tangible difference, it is necessary first to acknowledge that an immediate conversion to waterborne solutions is not practical, in the short and medium term.
Attainable, cost-effective alternatives
A safer alternative to pit latrines has been developed and tested extensively and is ready for implementation in communities. It is a cost-effective, dry sanitation unit that addresses health and safety shortfalls, installation difficulties and servicing problems with pit latrines while ensuring that environmental and underground water contamination cannot occur. The main structure consists of concrete and the door is made of injection moulding plastic, with a ventilation pipe to limit odours. The waste containment unit has a 1,500-litre bladder with a 3–5-year guaranteed life cycle, which can be removed without disabling the unit. The units are mobile, and no pit must be dug, which reduces installation costs and limits the abandonment of land. The unit itself is shaped in an ellipse to maximise space utilisation and waste containment, using a rotating bowl to dispose of waste, which prevents contact with faecal matter. The unit is sealed to prevent insects from entering or exiting the system and uses environmentally friendly products to treat waste, all of which address environmental concerns.
A cleaner, safer future
The need to eliminate pit latrines in South Africa is clear, given the multitude of risks they pose to the health, safety, and environment of communities. While an immediate conversion to waterborne sanitation may not be practical due to water supply and treatment limitations, the development of safer alternatives, such as the dry sanitation unit, offers promising possibilities. By prioritising the implementation of such practical and effective solutions, South Africa can significantly enhance the well-being and quality of life of its communities, making strides towards a future where pit latrines are replaced with safe, sustainable, and healthier sanitation options for all citizens.