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South Africa's Sanitation Cesspools

Toilet Apartheid

by PATRICK BOND

Durban, South Africa.

This week’s World Toilet Summit offers an opportunity to contemplate how we curate our crap. Increasingly the calculus seems to be cash, generating contradictions ranging from local to global scales, across race, gender, generation and geography. Nowhere are they more evident than in the host city, my hometown of Durban. We’ve suffered an 18-year era of neoliberal-nationalist malgovernance including toilet apartheid, in the wake of more than 150 years of colonialism and straight racial-apartheid.

In central Durban, the mafia of the global water and sanitation sector – its corporate, NGO and state-bureaucratic elite – have gathered at the International Convention Centre, just a few blocks west of the Indian Ocean, into which far too much of our excrement already flows. They’re at the same scene of the crime as, exactly a year ago, negotiators dithered at the United Nations COP17 ‘Conference of Polluters’ summit.

Recall that the COP17 rebuffed anyone who fancifully hoped global elites might address the planet’s main 21st century crisis. The 1%-ers inside ignored outsider demands for climate justice: make airtight commitments to 50 percent emissions cuts by 2020; drop the ‘privatisation of the air’ strategy known as carbon trading and offsets; and cough up ‘climate debt’ payments from rich to poor countries.

Instead, that conference ended with a ‘Durban Platform’ that re-emphasized capitalist strategies, pleasing Washington especially. The COP17 deal eroded differences in responsibility between North and South, and moreover, as lead Bank of America Merrill Lynch carbon dealer Abyd Karmali told the Financial Times, the Durban Platform was “like a Viagra shot for the flailing carbon markets.” True, a tiny carbon price erection followed, but the effect soon wore off; the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme has been flaccid throughout 2012.

What the dog’s-breakfast Durban Platform confirms, then, was global-elite back-slapping generosity to each other, simultaneous with rank incompetence and utter disregard for the poor and environment, all of which are again on display this week at the COP18 in Doha, Qatar. Precedents matter, for lowering standards.

The commodification of crap

The World Toilet Organisation’s battle cry, ‘Scaling up – dignity for all!’, appears as a creative talk-left but turn-the-tap-right (i.e. off) strategy. The water mafia has long struggled to gain legitimacy for neoliberal cost-cutting strategies, and now does so by invoking dignity (and they also have tried colonising the ‘water rights’ discourse) – but naturally not genuine equal access and consumer affordability, neither of which are possible under neoliberalism.

Another version of this is micro-scale privatisation, where NGOs and community organisations are encouraged to build local toilets and charge poor people for their use, to cover construction, cleaning, maintenance, the water bill and a tiny salary.

Last month in Nairobi’s Kibera and Huruma slums, I spent a day dodging the ‘flying toilets’ (plastic bags filled with faeces), thankfully guided in walkabouts by two admirable popular organisations whose young men – often drawn from ex-gang members – construct these toilets after fighting the small-scale local water capitalists who physically sabotage state suppliers. These systems of desperation-commodification, priced at US$0.10 per use (including one piece of loo paper), are vast improvements on the flying-toilet status quo.

This travesty is the result of a more general neoliberal dogma that hit slums like Nairobi’s over the past quarter-century: cut-backs in state-subsidised water. The strong residue – both in World Bank techie talk and in populist-neoliberal micro-privatisation mode – is just as evident at the Durban Toilet Summit as it was at the World Water Forum in Marseilles nine months ago. That event reconfirmed the water-empire expansion of Paris mega-privatisers like Veolia and Suez, along with the likes of liquid-barons Coke and Nestle, all backed by the multilateral development banks.

Although for a dozen years, fierce anti-privatisation struggles have been waged in Cochabamba, Johannesburg, Accra, Argentina, Atlanta, Jakarta, Manila and many other urban water battlegrounds, it seems that recent US and European municipal fiscal crises offer a new opportunity for the water profiteers.

At the Durban summit, even more clever neoliberal stunts are being rehearsed. ‘Community-Led Total Sanitation’ (CLTS) popularized by NGOer Kamal Kar and academic Robert Chambers in Bangladesh passes yet more responsibilities for public hygiene downwards to poor people. The goal is to wean the lumpens off reliance upon state subsidies through social shaming.

Explains Petra Bongartz from Sussex University, “Through the tools employed by CLTS, a community comes to self-realization that their acts of open defecation are disgusting. In disgust, I have seen some people spit, others turn away from the direction of shit. Still others have vomited at the sight of shit. Disgust is one of the key elements of a CLTS trigger. Disgust is ignited by the unpleasant sight of shit, more so when the shit is still in its fresh and wet state.”

State funds to supply sanitation services are invariably in short supply, so such gimmicks allow smirking Finance Ministry technocrats in many countries to both decentralize the state and shrink it, and in the process, shift duties to municipalities and vulnerable people, in a process sometimes called ‘unfunded mandates’.

Durban’s dirty water 

In this context, Durban residents like myself are having a hard time separating good from bad arguments when it comes to water quality and sanitation. First is the rumour, fed by media hysteria, that drinking Durban’s increasingly grey water is bad for us. As the city begins to mix recycled city sewage with river supply from the mercury-contaminated Inanda Dam (where signs warn local Zulu fisherfolk against eating their catch) and other E.coli-infected streams, will we end up as ill and thirsty as several unfortunate neighbouring Mpumalanga Province towns’ citizens?

In many little ‘dorpies’ stretching from Johannesburg east through Mpumalanga to the Mozambique border at Kruger Park, Acid Mine Drainage and related toxic effluent from coal mining corporations flow prolifically. The national environment ministry turns a blind eye. Between worsening climate change, declining air quality and widespread water pollution, it is terrible but true – as even the African National Congress (ANC) government admits in obscure reports – that apartheid’s ecology was better than freedom’s. 

To illustrate, at the very tip of government’s free-market, fast-melting iceberg, Cyril Ramaphosa’s coal company was let off the prosecutorial hook last month for operating without a water license. Ramaphosa’s political clout was simply overwhelming, according to a leading Pretoria bureaucrat cited by The Mail & Guardian. Indeed it’s likely Ramaphosa will become the country’s second leader at an ANC conference in a fortnight’s time, notwithstanding his smoking-email role in the Marikana massacre, carried out by police 14 weeks ago at the behest of the multinational corporation, Lonmin, for which Ramaphosa serves as local frontman.

As for Durban’s tap-water quality, no, I don’t think there’s any worry, and still have no qualms about ordering my restaurant water straight from the tap. Much worse is the rise of plastic bottles – see http://www.storyofbottledwater.org for gory details – which clog landfills and whose petroleum inputs soil the air in South Durban, Africa’s largest refinery site.

There, children in the mainly Indian suburb of Merebank suffer the world’s worst recorded asthma rate. The Malaysian-owned Engen refinery and BP/Shell’s Sapref complex act like a massive pollution pincer on the kids’ young lungs. Last week, even the slobs at the US Environmental Protection Agency deemed BP – ‘Beyond Petroleum’ (hah) – such a filthy rogue that it may no longer bid for new oil leases there.

Durban’s dirty water policy

Other gossip making the rounds here concerns the world-famous water manager who runs Durban’s municipal system, Neil Macleod. Billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates blogged two years ago that Macleod “has been a leader in thinking through how to improve sanitation for the poor in Durban.” But last month Macleod was charged with corruption by his subordinates (whom he was investigating for the same crime).

This came just at the moment that former Durban city manager Mike Sutcliffe apparently intimidated his successor S’bu Sithole into out-of-court-settlement talks over corruption libel which may leave taxpayers shelling out as much as a million dollars to featherbed Sutcliffe’s supposedly injured ‘reputation’. Although the Manase Report into city corruption – from which Sithole made his claims that Sutcliffe should be jailed – remains a state secret, in both the Macleod and Sutcliffe cases, I’m convinced that they are being unfairly maligned.

How, then, might we more fairly malign these men, not personally of course, but for the society-corrupting, health-threatening, ecologically-destructive sanitation policies on their watch?

The most obvious evidence is the city’s repeated embarrassment at reports of high E.coli and toxin levels in the rivers feeding the ocean, especially after rains, leading to the loss of international ‘Blue Flag’ status at ten Durban beaches four years ago. This month is vital for attracting Johannesburg tourists, so the excessive recent storms make it doubly hard for our hospitality industry, given last week’s reports about unsafe beaches.

So why do long stretches of Durban’s beaches become unswimmable after rains? The primary cause is Macleod’s persistent failure to address the vast sanitation backlog in more than 100 shack settlements across the city. Here, Sutcliffe long refused to authorize standard municipal services – such as water mains and bulk sewage – because of their informal property-rights status, especially those near the traditionally white and Indian areas subject to forced-displacement pressure.

Most shack settlements, in which around a third of Durban’s 3.5 million people live, have only a few poorly- (or un-) maintained toilets, notwithstanding heroic efforts by their main social movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo – most notably at the Kennedy Road shack settlement of 4000 residents and 8 toilets (until ruling party thuggery forced them out) – to raise the profile of the problem.

As a result of loose excrement, E.coli flows into our streams at a rate far higher than the recommended ‘safe’ level of 100 parts per 100ml. The 2010 State of the Rivers Report found the E.coli count in the “uMngeni River at Kennedy Road up to 1,080,000. Cause: Informal Community on the banks of the Palmiet River.”

Power politics and toilet apartheid

Five years ago, Macleod predicted to Science magazine that by 2010, “everyone [would have] access to a proper toilet,” while in reality, hundreds of thousands do not, today.

Neoliberal sanitation experts visiting Durban for the Toilet Summit may rebut that the world cannot afford 12-liter flushes for everyone, and that we must embrace some version of low-water toilets here. (I agree that low-flush bio-gas digesters could be a fine compromise, supplying cooking gas to nearby houses.)

Yet community critics regularly tell us that Durban’s water-less ‘Ventilated Improved Pitlatrine’ (VIP) and ‘Urinary Diversion’ (‘UD’ – or ‘UnDignified’) strategies are failing. If the municipality possessed a genuinely green consciousness, then middle- and upper-class areas would have such pilot projects – not just tens of thousands provided in the city’s low-income periphery.

I flush a few times each day and pay a small premium: more than Durban’s poor can afford, but still not enough for the sake of equity. Many South African readers of this column could easily cross-subsidise their low-income fellow residents, by paying more for the privileges of filling swimming pools and bathtubs, watering gardens, running washing machines and all the other liquid luxuries we enjoy. This is, after all, the world’s most unequal major country, and it’s far worse now than even during apartheid.

If those of us above the 80th percentile paid more to deter our hedonistic water consumption, and if Macleod adjusted tariffs downwards accordingly for poor people, then Durban would not be South Africa’s second stingiest city for water, according to the University of the Witwatersrand Centre for Applied Legal Studies. (The worst is nearby Pietermaritzburg – both reflective of durable old-style Natal white settler-colonial mentality and latter-day Zulu managerial conservatism.)

If such logical reforms were made to water and sanitation prices, then better health and gender equity would result, and more funds could be raised for installing decent toilets across the city, as well as to repair sewage pipes whose cracks regularly infect our rivers and harbour.

After enormous herds of White Elephant infrastructure – underutilized stadiums, a fast train linking Pretoria and Joburg, and Durban’s new airport – were built across SA for the 2010 World Cup, no one in power can claim that construction capability or subsidized funding are lacking. What’s missing is a more favourable politics of and by the poor, and so what will continue to result is toilet-apartheid.

Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.