Building our own loos

2012-11-22 00:00

IS development the exclusive competency of the state? I ask this because since the dawn of our democracy, state institutions have produced tons of planning documents. Documents filled with the best intentions for turning the republic into the best place for us to live and prosper. But all too often, a shadow falls between the original intentions and what is achieved. Some programmes hardly resemble their original intentions. Projects tend to die before reaching their destination. Are we trapped in this pattern? Should it be standard practice for state institutions to run to the Treasury for more cash when in trouble? After years of warnings with regard to the maintenance of rural sanitation facilities, such concerns are resurfacing and the list of problems has grown to include the health imperatives of the sanitation programme.

The intention of the sanitation programme is to break the cycle of disease caused by the poor management of human excreta. The use of a toilet, when combined with health-promoting behaviours, should create multiple barriers to prevent people from getting sick. How do we do this? At present, municipalities employ service providers to construct pit toilets and educate users on issues of health and hygiene.

In March, the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) in the Presidency released a report on the status of sanitation services. This showed that not only will the backlog not be met by 2014 as planned, but confirmed that sanitation projects no longer invest in their social, health and hygiene objectives. Should we panic and go back to the drawing board? We certainly should be worried. Water resources are contaminated, people will continue to get sick and the health bill will remain high. And don’t forget your tax bill, as these problems will become more and more expensive to correct.

We need to engage the poor and vulnerable populations to be part of finding the solution. If we expect them to claw their way out of poverty, they need to reclaim their productive time from sickness and disease. Sanitation is not only about toilets, it is about engaging communities to take control of their sanitation, health and hygiene priorities.

This leads us to some very pertinent issues. Whether it is sanitation, housing, local economic development, skills development or poverty alleviation, the approach remains the only connector between the intention of the project and its realisation.

The public water sector struggles to establish harmony between planned expenditure and the desired health goals of a sanitation project. But an unintended view of sanitation programmes has been created. Communities see them as the provider of jobs while, perhaps even worse, municipalities are trapped into meeting their spending targets. For a municipality to meet its delivery and spending targets, it has to abdicate some of its responsibilities through tendering to external service providers. Immediately, the project becomes supply-driven, about getting the planned number of toilets to households. The social and health benefits of the projects are pushed to the periphery and replaced by statistics.

Despite these challenges, some pointers to the right approach are there. The sanitation sector needs to undo the built-in disincentives in the current delivery approach and the view that sanitation is about providing jobs and meeting service delivery targets should be addressed as a matter of urgency. Work needs to be done with regard to changing people’s perceptions, particularly those of the public servants and of the communities themselves. We can do this by starting to appreciate and integrate the capacities of the existing social infrastructure in the communities. A community-based organisation that is rooted locally and already engaged in some community services has more chance of promoting the health benefits long after the completion of a project. Health-promoting dialogues should feature in all aspects of community life.

Municipalities will find it complicated to revert to a demand-driven development approach. We know that supply-push approaches often fail. I argue that communities can build their own toilets and promote their own health and hygiene. In this way, communities could soon realise some development goals when they implement integrated development projects in their environment. They can achieve an array of sustainable benefits, such as construction skills that they will be able to use beyond the initial project. Local entrepreneurs can identify income-generating opportunities where their services and goods can be provided together with the necessary health messages. Householders will be proud of their achievement in creating multiple disease barriers caused by poor management of human excreta.

Despite the rhetoric of sustainable and integrated development, sanitation programmes have more chances for communities to lead the way in their own development. Unless we act now, our national sanitation programme will continue replicating itself with unintended and potentially disastrous consequences. We need to transform a message of despair to one that sees sanitation as a key contributor to social wealth.

Nqe Dlamini is a rural development consultant and chairperson of the national board of the SA Red Cross.

Sanitation programmes are a golden opportunity to foster self-sufficiency and skills development

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