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South Africa probing socially acceptable low- and no-water sanitation alternatives

3rd July 2015

By: Schalk Burger
Creamer Media Senior Contributing Editor


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South Africa might face significant water stress and possible outright water scarcity in 10 to 15 years, unless its citizens adapt their behaviour with regard to efficient water use and sanitation systems.

Significant work is being done to assess the viability of low-water and no-water sanitation technologies, yet the main barrier to their effective deployment remains the behaviour of users and their acceptance and adoption of these technologies.


Waterborne sanitation is an aspiration and end goal for most people in South Africa, regardless of their local context or the availability of water and infrastructure to support waterborne sanitation.

However, the development and deployment of new or alternative sanitation systems by commercial companies are also beginning to provide the context for users to change their habits pro- actively and supported by suitable products and services.


“There are many evolving technologies that can eventually form part of the sanitation delivery chain. We must allow new technologies and innovations space to emerge and to form part of a new and more diverse, sanitation industry,” says Water Research Commission (WRC) water use and waste management executive manager Jay Bhagwan.

“We must consider the sustainability of waterborne sanitation, not just with regard to providing sanitation in rural areas, but also in established, urban formal service areas. Driving adoption and sustainability-conscious water use by all sections of society is a key part of providing the environment necessary for these new enterprises and industries to arise and find their place in the market,” he says.

However, environmental and contextual constraints must be considered when deploying new technologies and are some of the key reasons that no single technology can effectively address all the sanitation challenges in South Africa, notes Bhagwan.

“The emergence of new sanitation technologies and systems can bolster existing commercial sanitation companies, as well as enabling new enterprises and industries to grow alongside these alternative sanitation systems.”

About 40% of water consumed by South African households is used only to flush toilets, while about 60% of the total water and sani- tation costs in South Africa is used to fund treatment of this contaminated wastewater, he emphasises.

On average, 200 g per person of human waste a day is flushed down the toilet, while 6 ℓ to 9 ℓ of pure water is used for each flush.

“This is unsustainable in South Africa and, while waterborne sanitation has been an effective barrier to diseases since the Renaissance, it is economically and feasibly impossible to provide all South Africans with waterborne sanitation,” he says.

Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, in May, said: “We must move from highly wasteful waterborne sewerage systems to low-water and no-water solutions.

“Where we continue to use water, it has to be ‘majority grey water’. It is incredible that [most] sanitation still uses expensive, drinking-quality water to flush a toilet,” she said.

“We need to be innovative and disruptive in addressing sanitation, and our approach has direct implications for meeting sanitation backlogs, as well as for the way water and sanitation systems operate in formal service areas,” emphasises Bhagwan. About 74% of South Africans have access to sanitation.

Many of the country’s wastewater treatment plants are unable to cope with the volumes of wastewater they must treat, and many of the country’s rivers are polluted with inadequately treated effluent from these plants, which may harm the health of downstream communities, damage ecosystems and increase the treatment burden to clean water abstracted from rivers for drinking.

However, there are many technologies that enable new ways of transporting and/or treating human waste, while water capture, reclamation and reuse will also, by necessity, play crucial parts in new sanitation systems, notes Bhagwan.

“Some of the technologies can help to treat waste at source, reducing the need for sewerage systems. Yet, some alternative sanitation systems will require new ways of handling the waste, and this will require the development of new industries.

“For example, bioreactor technologies can help to treat human waste while also providing heat and/or energy from the chemical reactions. However, such biological systems will require sanitation services companies to increase their knowledge of the dangers and operational requirements of such systems, as well as develop new support and maintenance regimes and business partnerships.”

The WRC is temporarily helping the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation to assess new technologies, but this is not its core mandate. Its core mandate lies in water research, but, through its assessment of new sanitation technologies, it is helping to develop methods for other government quality agencies to take over the function of assessing the safety and applicability of new sanitation technologies, says Bhagwan.

“Innovation is happening at a blistering pace in many other industries; we should aim to use innovation to design new products and redesign sanitation systems to bring about water efficiency, convenience and safety.

“We have to deal with the reality that not everyone can get a flushing toilet,” said Mokonyane.

Driving Adoption
There are two key barriers to acceptance and the adoption of new sanitation technologies, namely technical barriers and cultural perception barriers.

Some of the technical barriers include municipal by-laws and regulations that prohibit new sanitation technologies from being installed in service areas, as they do not conform to existing sanitation regulations and by-laws, says research body Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Built Environment principal researcher Louiza Duncker.

“Policies and regulations must be changed to create an enabling environment before any significant changes or revolution can occur.”

Bhagwan concurs, noting that some norms, standards and regulations inhibit the adoption and use of alternative sanitation technologies.

Mokonyane said that government needed to create a conducive legislative and fiscal framework and introduce a paradigm-shift that challenged the established way of dealing with sanitation challenges.

Meanwhile, the perceptions of people, whether factually correct or not, are a significant barrier to the long-term sustainability of sanitation technologies and systems.

“A clear understanding by citizens of how any given technology works, how the systems must be managed, maintained, repaired and/or cleaned is required to ensure any technology’s viability and feasibility,” says Duncker.

“Community engagement and knowledge are only parts of the solution. Any new sanitation systems will have to deal with community perception barriers, and remain cognisant that beliefs are highly resilient.”

Beliefs change over time and the “sanitation revolution” will have to be twinned with continuous information and education drives to help to improve the chances of acceptance and long-term sustainability.

Mokonyane emphasised these aspects in May noting that South Africa needed a sophisticated roll-out model that empowered local communities.

“High-levels of local community participation in governance are key to ensure longevity, and ward committees must be core to this enterprise. We need to empower ward councillors with information about our plans, programmes and offerings to deal with water and sanitation challenges on the ground.

“Furthermore, community social mobilisation should be at the centre of every programme. We have seen in the past that, even with the best of intentions, without community participation and engagement, projects have fallen flat and collapsed,” she said.

Duncker emphasises the necessity of contextual suitability of sanitation technologies, grounded in a deep understanding of community perceptions and desires.

“Without understanding what the community knows, wants or expects in relation to sanitation, it will be impossible to address their sanitation needs,” says Duncker.

Changing Water Culture
Adapting existing sanitation services in formal services areas, as well as enabling the deployment of emerging alternative sanitation systems in underserviced and formal service areas, will be key in enabling users to change their water use and sanitation habits, says Bhagwan.

“Most new houses, including upper-class houses, are already being built with low-flush toilets, while some also have water capture and solar power systems, indicating the effect that environment-conscious consumers and sustainability-aware architects and construction companies are having on driving and enabling behavioural changes.

“Similarly, people in rural areas are also changing their assessments of alternative sanitation systems, which provide dignity and an effective health barrier. For example, the WRC rolled out the Envirosan Easy Flush sanitation system in the Cofimvaba area in June, which is a low-flush sanitation system that functions within the environmental and social context of the region,” he says.

“Load-shedding (rotational power cuts) and ever-increasing electricity tariffs provided urban dwellers with the incentive to introduce energy-efficient bulbs, to buy generators or batteries or install alternative energy systems, such as solar photovoltaic panels,” adds Duncker.

Load-shedding also helped to drive commercial demand for and the supply of efficient electrical products and a similar context should be created for water and sanitation in South Africa, albeit prior to water scarcity, rather than after the fact, as happened with the electrical products available to consumers after load-shedding started in 2008.

“Policies must be designed to enable broader sanitation technologies to be used, or pared back to enable new sanitation systems to be used, which helps to create the necessary context for behavioural change,” she notes.

Meanwhile, municipalities remain central to the deployment of sanitation systems. However, municipal officers are often perceived as arrogant and disconnected from their constituencies and this is where Mokonyane’s call is noteworthy, says Duncker.

“The principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ should serve as a constant reminder that whatever we do, we should not do it for self-gratification, but for the restoration of the dignity of our people,” Mokonyane emphasised to both public- and private-sector actors in their quest to achieve the sanitation revolution.


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