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DEVELOPMENT-AFRICA: Sanitation: 'This Is the Way We Live'

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Dec 19 2008 (IPS) - In 1925, Mahatma Gandhi remarked that "Sanitation is more important than political independence." More than 80 years later, access to basic sanitation remains out of reach for 546 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.

In East Africa, not one country is on track to meet Millennium Development Goal Seven, which aims to reduce by half the number of people without access to clean drinking water and decent sanitation by 2015.

Despite governments in the region being signatories to several declarations on improving sanitation, many East African households still lack access to flush toilets or pit latrines. Open defecation is widespread, and 'flying toilets', where people defecate in plastic bags and throw them away at night are the rule rather than the exception in many informal settlements.

"This is the way we live. We do not have toilets, and no place to safely dispose of our waste," said Nicholas Ambeyo. "Because of this, and the lack of sufficient water, and the open sewers that run through our houses, we are at a risk of contracting diseases."

Ambeyo spoke to IPS in his home in Kibera. With a population estimated to be close to a million people, Kibera is one of Africa's largest slums. It is approximately seven kilometres from Nairobi city centre.

"In fact as we are talking, my wife has just arrived home from that hospital with my two children who have been treated for cholera," he said, pointing at a run-down health centre a stones' throw away.

Poor sanitation facilities often lead to ill health. For instance 30 percent of Kenya's disease burden is sanitation-related, with many children dying from diarrhoeal diseases including dysentery, cholera and typhoid, according to the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation. The U.N. says that such deaths could be prevented through investment in toilets, water and hygiene.

Even so, toilet cover in Kenya is still low, with latrines available to less than 50 percent of the population, according to James Gesami, the country's assistant minister for Public Health and Sanitation.

Although Kenya and other eastern African countries committed themselves to increased financing for sanitation at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002 – promising to reduce the proportion of people without basic sanitation facilities – the issue has not been prioritised in national budgets since then.

"Sanitation is a newly thought-out issue and we have not given adequate resources to that sector, but things are changing now," Gesami told IPS. Government statistics show that budgetary allocation to sanitation in Kenya currently stands at 13 million dollars per year, too little for the country to reach the sanitation MDG. It is estimated that the country will require about 40 million dollars per year if is to achieve the MDG by the set deadline of 2015.

In Sudan, the situation is not much different, even in the north, which was relatively stable during the two-decade long civil strife. A 2008 United Nations Development Programme report indicates that Sudan is far from achieving the sanitation MDG, especially in war-affected areas. Access to improved sanitation in Southern Sudan is at 6.4 percent, way below the 2015 target of 53 percent.

Access to improved sanitation in the north stands at 39.9 percent, edging closer to the 2015 target of 67 percent. Minimal budgetary allocations for sanitation have made it difficult for the government to provide the majority of poor citizens with basic toilet and latrine facilities. This has been blamed for the widespread outbreaks of diarrhoeal ailments, according to Elobeid Mohammed, coordinator of Sudan National Discourse, a water and sanitation non-governmental body.

"Diarrhoea, especially among children is common during autumn because of the rains and blocked sewers. These are diseases that can be prevented by ensuring access to toilets and hygiene. By doing this, the government can save money and pump it to other crucial sectors of development," Mohammed told IPS.

Charles Hakizimana, chairman of the African Ministers' Council on Water, says efforts to improve latrine coverage have been jeopardised by extreme poverty, illustrating the situation with an example from Burundi.

"There are cases where development agencies have provided material to communities to dig latrines, but [beneficiaries] sell them and continue defecating in the bush. Often times the people have said: "give us food first, there is no need to construct pit latrines when we do not have anything to put in them,"" Hakizimana, said.

In addition, there are social obstacles to providing sanitation to all. For instance, in several parts of East Africa, it is taboo for fathers-in-law to share a latrine with his daughters-in-law or mothers-in-law to share with sons-in-law. Usually because there is only one latrine in a home, those who cannot share the facility opt for open defecation, polluting the environment.

Constructing separate latrines for different family members is far too costly. Sanitation experts say communities need to be informed in order to change their attitudes, and accept that it is in order for relatives to share a toilet to avoid environmental contamination.

According to the UN, the sheer volume of human waste is also something to be concerned about. "Without effective sanitation systems, human waste flows directly into water courses and contaminates groundwater. Water supplies are compromised, rivers become stinking sewers and fisheries are threatened," says a UN-WATER report published recently.

Speaking as the host of a regional review of sanitation held in Nairobi in November, Edward Kairu, chairman of the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation, said, "Our governments must take the lead. A lot needs to be done. If we continue with business as usual, the sanitation MDG risks not being met at all in our countries."

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