This week’s post is by Philippa Ross, an Engineering student at UCL who is undertaking fieldwork in Africa.
Most people come to Uganda to see rare gorillas, take a safari or visit Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and the largest tropical lake in the world. But I’m here for a far more exciting reason: to look at toilets. 160 toilets to be exact, and maybe a couple more for good measure! As part of my EngD research in the Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience at UCL, I am in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to study the risk to health posed by poor sanitation systems. I’ll be working in some of the poorest areas in the city, where many people live on less than US $1 per day. It’s not just toilets I am looking at; I’m interested in the whole sanitation system including hygiene, drains, solid waste and pit emptying, among other things.
In the UK we just flush and forget when we go to the toilet, but in the slum areas of Kampala people have very small income to build flushing toilets, water for flushing is scarce, and there are no sewer systems to flush into! Most people in the slum areas of Kampala use a pit latrine. But what happens when the pit is full? Space is expensive in these over-crowed areas and people can’t just dig another pit when one gets full – so they must empty the pit. De-sludging trucks (beautifully named honeysuckers!) do exist but they are expensive and cannot access many of the narrow streets in slum areas, so many pits are bucketed empty by hand and the waste is often thrown into the drainage systems – which are open and where children often play. These drains also overflow in heavy rain, spreading highly concentrated faecal matter into the local area – this practice makes me question if it was worth going in the toilet in the first place!
So what’s the big deal? Well, over 2000 children die every day due to diseases caused by poor sanitation – that strikes me as a crisis and it certainly is a chronic disaster, which can be solved simply with good sanitation systems. It is interesting that these issues are very similar to those faced in London in 1840 when cholera was widespread, people collected water from the river or shallow wells and human waste was contained in cesspits which frequently over flowed into the drainage systems – turning the river Thames into a sewer! In 1858 the stench of the Thames was so bad in London that the Houses of Parliament were forced to close and made politicians take notice. It was gaining political support for the cause that led to the building of the sewer system in London as we know it.
Kampala has a population of 1.5 million and it is estimated that 60% live in slum areas, which make my 160 toilets a drop in the ocean. Looking at toilets all day isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, which is exactly the problem for Kampala City Council, responsible for sanitation in the city. They have no idea about the current sanitation situation in the slum areas, and the poor people living in these areas do not have a voice politically and cannot afford to improve their situation.
I am working in two slum areas: Bwaise III and Katwe III. Both areas are located in low-lying marsh areas, where no one else wants to build houses. They experience frequent floods and have a high water table. You can actually see where houses are sinking! The high water table adds an extra problem for building latrines – they have to be raised as a pit would collapse and contaminate the ground water. This makes building a latrine unaffordable for an individual family and therefore often 4 -6 families share latrines or use public latrines. I was surprised about how clean the shared toilets were as they are currently not recognised internationally as improved sanitation but many were in better condition that the household latrines I observed in the slums areas of Maputo, Mozambique (the other location of my research). At night time however, things get difficult if you share or use a public latrine. It is often not safe to go out at night and as a consequence people use ‘flying toilets ‘ – plastic bags or potties that often get emptied into the drains.
I have developed a participatory workshop that aims to collect data about the communities’ sanitation issues. The idea is to develop a link between local government to give poor communities a voice to raise their issues and to collect data which highlights poor sanitation ‘hot spots’ and can form a basis for city-wide sanitation planning. In the workshops, participants score their area based on a number of sanitary related indicators. The workshops have been great fun and the participants have been engaged and insightful. The results are triangulated and validated with results from a household survey (as mentioned earlier, my visit to 160 toilets!) which is a more traditional data gathering technique. The results are yet to be analysed, but the community commented that they thought the workshop would be more accurate as a household survey as the questions are very personal and people are embarrassed to say if they don’t use a latrine or don’t wash their hands. This supports my view that the technical engineering side of sanitation is the easy bit! Sociology, psychology and behaviour changes are the massive challenges.
So all that’s left to say is that after two weeks in Kampala I am also suffering from sanitary-related issues… Let’s just say I am appreciating the good toilet I have at my guest house. Not a good advert for a sanitation engineer!