Flushing out the realities of urine diversion toilets in South Africa’s eThekwini municipality

If you worked for a municipality and were tasked with implementing a plan to provide some 40,000 households with sanitation on a limited budget and a strained water supply system, how would you carry out this challenging task?   After attending a workshop on the social implications of urine-diversion toilets, an innovative, environmentally sensitive type of sanitation, in South Africa’s eThekwini municipality, the complexities of such a task and the challenges of sanitation became glaringly evident.  The workshop was delivered by Umphilo waManzi, a water services advocacy organization based in Durban, South Africa, that is conducting an action research project on urine diversion (UD) toilets.   Since 2006, eThekwini municipality has been working to provide over a half million residents with UD toilets in peri-urban and rural areas of the municipality.  According to eThekwini’s Water & Sanitation programme, “the urine diversion toilet is a form of waterless ecological sanitation designed to separate urine and feces so that the fecal matter remains dry and rendered disease free for safe handling over time.”  The toilet has an opening in the front for passing urine, which is directed to a soak-away pit, and a large one at the back for the passing of faeces. The toilets used by eThekwini have two vaults—when the first vault is full, the pedestal can be moved across to the second vault.  This allows time for the first to be sealed and begin the composting process.

The push for UD toilets was driven by shortcomings of ventilated pit latrines (VIPs), which are found in most townships of South Africa.  The UD toilets provide a cost-effective form of on-site sanitation, which is needed in most peri-urban and rural parts of the municipality where water-borne sewerage is currently unavailable.  For the municipality, providing proper sanitation is imperative to avoid costly public health outbreaks, such as cholera.  However, the implementation of UD toilets has been met with mixed-reviews by the residents that use them, as well as municipal officials, academics, and civil society.  In some areas of the municipality, the toilets have been accepted and are being used with little issue.  On the other hand, Umphilo waManzi’s action research in the community indicates a long list of issues, including a lack of consultation with community members about operation and maintenance, construction problems, hygiene challenges, and other social issues, such as the use of these facilities by people with disabilities.

There is also a huge responsibility on the residents to maintain the toilets.  Residents are responsible for pouring sand over fecal matter after each use to prevent odour and flies.  They are also responsible for emptying the chambers once they are full and the matter has desiccated.  The “compost” must be buried underground and a tree planted on top to mark the burial spot.  With a high-degree of responsibility being placed on residents to maintain the UDs, the need to remove the taboo around the handling of fecal matter has also become a challenge.

Also, there have been serious issues in areas where on one side of the road residents have water-borne sewerage and flush toilets, and on the other side of the road, residents have UD toilets.  Despite the large amounts of capital required to increase water-borne sewerage to peri-urban and rural areas of the municipality, this division of service is creating an urban bias for municipal services, which is contentious.  Residents on the fringes are being asked to conserve water for the sake of residents in the urban core, who use flush toilets and have higher water use habits in general.  In some areas, the toilets are being outright rejected—being used as maintenance sheds for tools, rather than for their intended purpose.  In an attempt to garner support from the masses for these toilets, the municipality is planning to construct UD toilets in its new office building in the downtown area—perhaps a symbolic gesture, or maybe a step in the right direction.

Furthermore, increased rainfall and flooding from climate change impacts in the region will pose interesting challenges to how UD toilets are constructed and maintained.  Researchers from the University of KwaZulu Natal’s Pollution Research Group in Durban have been studying more scientifically the composition of fecal matter from UD toilets and the effects of nitrate leaking from the urine soak-away pits into local groundwater sources.  Together with Umphilo waManzi, they are beginning to share information regarding the health concerns and social implications of these toilets.  Hopefully, this information and knowledge from the community can be shared with the municipality to address some of the issues and improve sanitation service delivery.

Beth Lorimer is a 3-month research intern with this project and is currently in Durban, South Africa working with Umphilo waManzi.

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