Sunday, July 7, 2013

Poo Wars - Sanitation in Cape Town's Informal Settlements

The 'poo wars' are taking Cape Town by storm... again. They are politically charged, indelibly tied to Apartheid planning but ultimately about giving people (yes, people) the dignity to poo; safely, in private and without compromising the health of their community - something most people reading this blog take for granted.

On current evidence, it seems the truth of the matter is that providing basic sanitation services to South Africa's poor seems too big a challenge for our major cities, regardless of who governs them (unpalatable as that might be to many DA supporters). In their defence though, delivering effective sanitation services to informal settlements is a tough ask, with few successful precedents globally.

This post is a response to a 'conversation' with WC premier, Helen Zille on Twitter (@helenzille) about the failure of The City of Cape Town to commit to a process of getting the problem solved. My biggest grievance is that the current approach has not even begun to test the possible innovative options and is desperately lacking in compassion - neglecting the dignity granted to all people by the bill of rights.

Informal settlements - slums - are a feature of nearly every emerging city. In many ways they provide an optimal, self-organising strategy for allowing people to escape rural poverty within whatever means they have and access the social and economic opportunities of cities. Slums are not, in and of themselves, a problem.

But they are devilishly difficult to service with municipal infrastructure - water, sanitation, waste collection and transport. They're also a challenge for essential services like health, education and security. In essence this is because our traditional approach to delivering services is that infrastructure comes first and people come later. When dwellings come first, we don't have good models for fitting infrastructure in afterwards.

With specific reference to the Cape Town saga, the difficulty is not in providing flush toilets in slums. That bit is rather easy actually. The difficulty is in connecting those toilets to the water, sewer and treatment plant infrastructure that make them work. A conventional flush loo with no sewer is of little use to anyone... And to retrofit sewer systems into informal settlements is nearly impossible without displacing thousands of people... Displacing people has been shown to be a universally bad idea, and especially so in a country with the political history of South Africa.

The result is that local government throw their hands up, claiming to be in a lose-lose situation. Unable to deliver the service they are comfortable with (sewer connected, water-borne sanitation) and facing the demand for flushing toilets (rather than the all-too-prevalent bucket or pit latrine systems), they deliver Portable Flush Toilets (PFTs).

These are the sort of thing you may be used to using at a construction site or music festival and are delivered as a flushing 'solution' to the demands of settlement citizens, without really understanding their underlying needs at all... It's not really about flushing; but rather safety, dignity and health.

This 'solution' inevitably falls apart - when inadequately maintained, the PFTs, not designed for the task of full-time service in the first place, end up broken, unsanitary and unsafe... And children end up playing in a cesspit, adding to the already overburdened public health system. PFT's are no real solution, just cynical a political band-aid to keep the opposition on the back-foot.

So it would seem that with a status quo approach to sanitation, cities are fundamentally unable to deliver effective sanitation services to their constituents. Decision-makers get focused on technology, and few give serious considerations to reforming the system. If ever there was a challenge which required a 'systemic' response rather than just a technology response, this is it.

A systems approach to sanitation might start with function - dignity, safety and health. Then it might consider resource cycles: the water cycle, treatment demands, nutrient availability (and potential use), durability and privacy. It might demand a solution that is cyclical, as there is no 'away' for waste to be sent, and no resource to carry it there (being disconnected from conventional water infrastructure too). It might also consider input from all the stakeholders - professionals, entrepreneurs, citizens, health departments and civil society (I'm sure there are others too).

Given the inherent limitations of informal settlements spatially, a permanent solution that meets the requirements of private, hygienic and safe is necessarily independent of conventional sewer infrastructure. This means that we are in the territory of dry-toilet systems (composting toilets), bio-digesters or wet-toilet systems with stand-alone bio-mechanical water treatment (or the band-aid PFT solution)...

In practice, it will probably be a combination of each. The most important thing though is that the function of the system be kept foremost in mind, not the technology.

That being said, a quick review of the tech is in order.

Dry toilet systems abound, but are usually dependent on relatively low loading. They are also quite expensive, and don't work well when used inappropriately (i.e. putting non-biological effluent down them). However, they work very well when combined with a composting system and provide a cyclical approach to nutrients without relying on extensive water use. Perhaps most importantly, once the effluent has been digested by bacteria in the sump, it is sterile and can be used for fertiliser or fuel - potentially even providing a source of income.

Decentralised wet systems (membrane bio reactors for instance) are tech-heavy and require attention, maintenance and energy. However, they are able to treat water to a very high standard so that it can be re-used. In theory, a well-designed packaged plant could fit into a shipping container, be run off a PV array on the roof and connected to an ablution block to deliver sanitation services. Tanked water could be provided occasionally to make up for the losses (typically in sludge drying) but most water would be circulated around the system. It could conceivably be augmented with some level of biogas collection and management of dried sludge for fuel purposes.

Bio-digesters are vessels which generate biogas through the bacterial digestion of organic waste. Industrial scale systems are typically aligned with pig farms, but again the potential exists for small or medium scale systems to be linked with municipal sanitation services. Again, the 'waste' becomes a resource for the generation of energy.

Moving on from the technology though, the engagement of end-users is essential, and civil society has an important role to play. Communities in Cape Town have rejected dry-toilet systems as inferior - an understandable viewpoint given the 'aspirational' nature of a white, porcelain, flushing loo. But I wonder if there were an income stream from the provision of sewage (as fertilizer to a community garden or as feedstock to a bio-digester operator) whether those perceptions could be shifted.

Based on what I have seen in successful strategies for renewable energy in informal entitlements in India using micro-finance (like Pollinate Energy), I am convinced appropriate solutions for sanitation can be found, with sufficient humility and willingness to engage.

I haven't done the design work and I'm not a waste-water specialist, but I have been seen a wide range of design processes that challenge the status quo, and the options are always wider than we first imagine.

I believe a first step for Cape Town might be to get some heads around a table - World Design Capital 2014 might be a good forum to do this in. There are bio-tech specialists at UCT (and almost certainly elsewhere), world class engineers and an engaged civil society in the City. Perhaps get a facilitation specialist to manage the process a team like Meshfield... But put experienced, innovative people around a table, with a brief and a budget and get them thinking, designing and working.

For what it's worth, my approach would be:

Trial a range of dry-toilet systems aligned to community gardens (Cape Town has poor soil, so nutrients are a limitation); not as a strategy to deliver the services to all, but to showcase how the tech works.

Do your best to secure buy-in and support from civic, health and community organisations.

Finance some of the investment from your health budget as the payback on 'prevention' will always top that on 'cure'.

If it is possible to build a business case around the production of local food, and the stigma (and actual safety and health) of waste-to-food can be managed (which they can), then do so. Frame the venture as a business exercise for value creation from a waste product, and better health and sanitation or a by-product.

Then, commission a packaged plant design with ablution facility, intended to be permanent, that runs a cyclical water re-use system. The system spec should be:

- energy neutral (i.e. powered by renewables)
- cycle water
- provide sterilised, dry sludge that can be used for fuel

This could be a university research project or paid design commission from an innovative engineering firm or start-up. The technology is largely proven and the challenges are cost, durability and scalability.

I would suggest a business plan competition at UCT or UWC business schools, with seed finding from the City for the winner for either. The most critical thing is to look at new models for finance, governance and ownership to view the utility as a community asset rather than an entitled service (which can only happen with a business plan and finance strategy).

Finally, get a feasibility study of the critical mass of bio-gas from effluent and value the waste in terms of energy production. If it is viable, let an operator strategize the collection of waste, with a requirement for safe, hygienic and private systems...

I know there are no easy solutions to this challenge, if there were, it would be commonplace by now. However, I also know that we have become complacent in our design of municipal infrastructure and that alternative opportunities do exist.

By acknowledging that the status quo (conventional sewers) is impossible in informal settlements, and temporary solutions are not in fact solutions, you create a challenge that must seek new answers.

I believe the challenge of innovative delivery of municipal services to informal settlements is one of the chief global challenges of this decade. I also believe it will prove crucial to the future competitiveness of emerging market cities.

I would hope there sufficient free thinkers, practical innovators and enlightened governors in Cape Town to at least attempt a fully integrated, multi-level, multi-tech approach to this challenge. 


  1. Great Read! I totally agree with the critique of the 'infrastructure before people' approach in urban management. In addition to the civil society at the proposed first step being 'engaged' I wish to add that they should be 'anchored in the community' if the process and outcomes of this important platform are to be in-step with the fluid nature of the needs, demands and political dynamics in informal settlements. I also propose going beyond securing 'buy in' of CSOs, CBO, etc to identification of- and adopting an innovative process that brings PEOPLE to the centre of problematising the existing situation and identification of solutions.

  2. Hi Tigere,

    Thanks for the feedback - really good comments all.

    I agree completely of the importance of bringing people in to the process. It is foundational to the idea of participatory design. One of my chief frustrations is the lack of compassion in the current approach.

    But it is also a huge challenge to bridge the gap between 'community' and the technical discussion that underpins feasibility. You need technical people with excellent communications skills and bucket loads of grace and patience to make meaningful progress...

    Tanks for engaging.


  3. Rich -
    My only comment is that again, this stuff is design led as opposed to stakeholder led.

    Too often, government comes in and prescribes solutions to the communities ( ie "getting a group of heads around the table"). My argument is that government's role should be as a facilitator and a funder. Go into the communities first. Then start developing options as a response to particular needs and environments. And only then go to the designers to try and design process to implement the selected solutions.

    There is too much moral hazard in the existing environment - giving engineers the scope to design the solutions before they have even consulted with the affected communities is inevitably going to lead to an argument for big mass-scale infrastructure. Because that is where the money and ego is going to be.

    Participatory design requires participation first and design later. And we are terrible at that.


  4. Ross

    Yes. Agree - I am inherently design-biased, but I'm not advocating design before discussion.

    The participation must be at the font end, and throughout, otherwise it's just more "telling-people-what-you're-going-to-do-to-them".

    Just don't underestimate the level of technically innovative design work needed to make meaningful progress.

    - Rich

  5. Check this out - with thanks to the Gates foundation:

  6. Like your take on collaboration and design.Got your contact from Tim in Sydney.Would be great to meet and chat . I am in Adelaide on the 29 and 30 July.Would be good to catch up.I work in the area of Placemaking and Resilience.
    Gil M 0402103010