Africa, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT: New Attempts to Eliminate Nairobi’s ‘Flying Toilets’

Katy Salmon

NAIROBI, Aug 7 2002 (IPS) - ‘’Please don’t step on any plastic. It might contain a bomb!” warns John Murage, assistant project officer for the African Medical Research Foundation’s (Amref) Integrated Primary Health Care Programme in Nairobi’s Kibera slums.

Murage gingerly picks his way along the rough dirt track that snakes between the tightly-packed mud houses. An open sewer of grey stagnant water cuts through the middle, littered with empty milk cartons, plastic bags and broken bottles. The smell is horrendous.

The ‘’bomb” he is looking out for, also known as ‘’scud missiles” or ‘’ flying toilets”, are human faeces wrapped in plastic. Flying toilets are a common hazard in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum with an estimated population of 500,000 to 750,000.

Amref are working in one section of the slum called Laini Saba. In 1998, there were just 10 working pit latrines for 40,000 people.

‘’These people are so disciplined you rarely see them relieving themselves. They only go for a long call at night in between the houses. They put the waste in a polythene bag and throw it on to the nearest roof or pathway,” explains Rysper Rajula, the project manager.

Most residents live in temporary mud houses on public land that has been illegally ‘’distributed” or appropriated. It is an uncertain existence with regular disputes over plot ownership.

Some favoured individuals receive temporary occupation licenses from the government. Others just decide to build on any available empty space.

A University of Nairobi study found that of 120 landlords interviewed, 57 percent were either government officers or politicians, according to United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).

Given that the settlements are illegal, landlords are not obliged to provide any services – no latrines or water, no electricity, no rubbish collection, no infrastructure, totally inadequate housing, no repairs or maintenance and open sewers filled with stinking, raw sewage.

Overcrowding is a massive problem. Kenya’s 1999 census found as many as 82,000 people living within an area of less than one square kilometre, HABITAT reported. Most homes are a single room shared by up to five people, often with leaking roofs, poorly finished mud floors and no window.

The end result is extremely poor health.

‘’About 50 to 60 percent of the problems we have here are related to poor hygiene conditions,” says Muiya Albamas, a lab technologist in the Amref-sponsored health centre.

Poor sanitation encourages the spread of diseases like typhoid, worm infestations and skin diseases. The open sewers are a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes.

Working with local community based organisations (CBO), like Mradi wa Afya ya Msingi na Maendeleo (MRAMMA), Kiswahili for Primary Health and Development Project, Amref is campaigning to ‘’stop flying toilets” in Kibera.

The CBOs select sites to build latrines and bathrooms and dig the pits. Amref provide the materials. It is then up to the community to maintain them. Every three months the local people have to pay Ksh2500 for the latrine to be emptied. ‘’It gives them some sense of ownership,” says Murage.

One U.S. dollar is equal to 78 Ksh.

Most latrines are in people’s compounds but some are in public places. CBOs choose people to manage and clean the latrines. The managers earn Ksh3 from every user.

Although this helps generate income for some slum dwellers, Murage does not see it as the ultimate solution.

‘’Three shillings is a lot of money for this community. A good number of people do not generate any income. They opt to relieve themselves elsewhere, ” he says.

The private latrines, like the one in 22-year-old Medina Abdul’s compound, are also noticeably cleaner than the public ones. The nine families living here installed a pit latrine two years ago.

‘’Before we just went behind,” Abdul says shyly, pointing up the hill. ‘’Now things have changed. People are clean.”

Amref have so far built 62 latrines, with another 13 under construction.

‘’This is just a drop in the ocean,” admits Murage. Ideally, he says, the people of Laini Saba need about 4,000 latrines.

A similar collaborative method is used to deliver clean water to the residents of Kibera. CBOs select a site while Amref provide the giant water tanker and piping to connect it to the City Council line. The water points are managed by CBO members and users pay Ksh2 per 20 litres of water. Some of the money goes to pay the City Council water bill, the rest they keep.

Litter is being tackled in the same way. Amref provide households with giant plastic bins and local youth groups collect them each week, charging Ksh20. Amref have also built a health centre in the area, offering subsidised services.

Despite their success, Rajula says the project can be dispiriting.

‘’You get so discouraged because you are only treating the symptoms. People deny the problem exists.

‘’Government officers think that when their cooks reach their posh houses, their diseases are left at the gate. I find it ridiculous,” she sighs.

Murage is more upbeat.

‘’While you are addressing their immediate needs, you get to understand the community better. Then you start preventing the problems from the source,” he says.

Experts at HABITAT say the Kenyan government needs to introduce a national policy on slum upgrading, regularise land allocation procedures, recognise the citizenship rights of slum dwellers and introduce legislation to prevent the construction of slum houses lacking basic amenities such as access to water and latrines.

Nairobi’s three million population is expected to double in the next 20 years.

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