Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs, The Southern Africa Water Wire, Water & Sanitation

HEALTH-SWAZILAND: Septic Tanks Preferred to the Latest in Sewage Treatment

James Hall

MANZINI, Oct 11 2007 (IPS) - Located on the outskirts of Swaziland&#39s commercial hub, the state of the art Manzini Waste Treatment Centre was built to end the city&#39s sewage disposal problems. A World Bank loan was secured by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development to construct the 16 million dollar facility: a spotless, landscaped plant which has a lifespan of 25 years.

There&#39s just one problem: most people in Manzini are too poor to make use of the centre.

Middle-class residents complain about having to pay plumbers and building contractors to remove their septic tanks and lay pipes for connecting homes to the sewerage system, and in turn, the plant. Concrete connection points were placed below each residential plot by the project&#39s supervising authority, the parastatal Swaziland Water Services Corporation.

"Who has the thousands of rand to pay for this unnecessary thing? We are happy with our backyard septic tank. We&#39ve had it for 30 years. The city truck pumps it out from time to time for only 100 rand (about 14 dollars)," said Gladys Simelane, a resident of Fairview South Township, a suburb on the hilltop overlooking downtown.

Septic tanks aren&#39t the answer, however. Certain home owners have been remiss about emptying them, and leaking, overflowing tanks have become health hazards that the waste treatment centre was designed to prevent.

Massive revolving arms mix anti-bacteria chemicals in sewage deposited in the plant’s large open air treatment pools. The waste is later pumped into a final treatment centre before being disposed of in the Mzimnene River, which runs through Manzini, with the treated water being cleaner than the river water it joins.

Nearby residents, who were financially rewarded for allowing the sewerage plant to be built in their farming community five kilometres south of Manzini, hardly know it is there. The electricity lines brought in to power the plant have been extended to their homesteads. But, in an inescapable irony, these same homes were not connected to sewer pipes.

The slow pace of establishing connections has caused the plant to be underutilised. Although it has the capacity to treat 250 litres of sewage a second, and can discharge 900 cubic metres of processed water an hour, the centre has not achieved this optimal usage in the two years it has been on line. To keep the plant running efficiently, treated water has to be pumped back into the system to maintain liquid levels at the required volumes in the ponds.

Plans are apparently afoot to send out notices to residents giving them a deadline to connect their homes to the sewerage system and remove septic tanks, after which they may be faced with fines for not doing so.

Of even greater concern to social welfare workers, though, are residents who are excluded from the new sanitation system entirely – and who are said to form the majority of Manzini&#39s inhabitants.

"Most Manzini people live in informal settlements. They are simply not recognised because their areas are not official. They have no septic tanks, no pit latrines," said Agnes Nkambule, a home-based care supervisor for the AIDS hospice group Positive People with AIDS.

"When they need to go to the bathroom they use the bush. They dump their wastewater in the streams."

Officially, Manzini&#39s population stands at about 30,000. However, this only takes into account people who live in designated areas, on registered housing plots. Other government figures indicate that those living in informal settlements help bring the city&#39s population to over 60,000.

Certain informal settlements are decades old. They include KaKhoza, named after a Mozambican storekeeper who set up his business on the western fringe of the city, providing the nucleus for an area now home to several thousand people. Madonsa settlement is on the opposite side of town, while Skum is on the river near the city centre.

"At least these places have names. The large new informal settlements sprouting up between Manzini and Matsapha are nameless. But they all have one thing in common. They are thrown-together slums: houses of wood scraps, cardboard and plastic – no water, no sanitation facilities," said Nkambule.

The Matsapha Industrial Estate, three kilometres west of Manzini, is a magnet for job seekers from poor rural areas, where 80 percent of Swazis live. Only a handful of people succeed in finding jobs; the rest migrate to the informal settlements.

Cholera poses a constant threat in these settlements, and elsewhere in the city, Nkambule added.

A widespread outbreak of this disease would be particularly grave in light of Swaziland&#39s AIDS infection rate. The National Emergency Council on HIV/AIDS lists cholera as a dangerous opportunistic disease in the Southern African nation, where one out of four sexually active adults is HIV positive: the world&#39s highest rate, according to the health ministry.

Matters have been aggravated by the worst drought in living memory, which has led to sporadic water shut-offs in formal neighbourhoods, and a harder scramble for water in the city&#39s slums.

"At least the well-off people have access to clean water. They have electricity; they have road infrastructure and other services. The majority poor have none of these things, and so it is no wonder that they also are left out of the sewage treatment plant," said Thamie Khumalo, a community activist who lives in a straw-roofed mud hut in KaKhoza.

A step towards addressing these difficulties is for slum areas to be transformed into formal settlements through giving title deeds to residents, after which plans can be made to provide services to the settlements.

A pilot programme to this effect has already been carried out by the housing ministry&#39s Urban Development Programme (UDP) in Msunduza, an informal settlement in the capital, Mbabane. The UDP also has plans for Madonsa.

"The method is to bring these settlements into the formal town, and make the people legitimate residents," said UDP Director Napoleon Ntezinde.

But connecting slums to infrastructure won&#39t solve the problem of poverty-stricken residents being unable to pay for services – with defaulters at risk of having their services cut.

"As far as the poor are concerned, the plan is a non-starter," said Khumalo.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, 67 percent of Swazis live on less than a dollar a day.

The Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, an initiative of the World Health Organisation and United Nations Children&#39s Fund, estimates that 48 percent of Swazis have sanitation coverage.

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