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Sanitation is a basic human right. Clean drinking water and functioning toilets are fundamental to enabling dignity, cleanliness, and health.

Many people take sanitation for granted: taps open and toilets flush on demand. But for most of the world, this critical need is a fantasy: according to the United Nations, 4.5 billion people either don’t have a toilet at home or use one that isn't safe.

With a global population of 7.7 billion, that means more people lack this right than those who have it.

Access to sanitation doesn’t get the same level of attention as other major health issues, but it’s a major problem.

From the risk of waterborne disease to human populations to the damage to the environment caused by untreated sewage flowing into rivers and the ocean, there are serious consequences to people being unable to access clean running water and a functional toilet. 

Just how widespread is this issue? As with so many problems, it hits the hardest where people have the least.

In sub-Saharan Africa, only 28% of people have access to sanitation facilities that are not shared with other households.

And society’s most vulnerable are also most at risk. Poor sanitation contributes to an estimated 500,000 child deaths from diarrhoea every year.

In South Africa, the situation isn’t much better, even if things are slowly improving: as of 2017, 82% of South Africans had improved access to a toilet, compared to 62% in 2002.

However, much of this access is created through shared toilets, which carry serious risks: poor lighting means that safety is an issue, particularly for women and girls; and hygiene standards are often inadequate, increasing the risk of disease.

Similarly, only 3% of the population still use bucket toilets – a figure that sounds impressive until it’s phrased a different way: 1.7 million South Africans still have to use a bucket for a toilet.

We have an urgent need for solutions that are safe, sustainable, and practical to implement at scale.

What’s the answer? Solutions need to balance the need for access, safety, and environmental sustainability. Pit latrines – which are the only toilets available at over 3,800 schools in South Africa – are dangerous, and children have died from drowning after falling in or having walls collapse on them.

They also damage the environment by contaminating groundwater. Portable chemical toilets are quick and cheap to install, but they’re undignified and unsafe.

This isn’t a problem that will be solved with a single, easy solution. That’s the approach that leads to multiple families sharing one temporary chemical toilet, or thousands of schools using pit latrines.

The answer needs to come from the ground up: from people who understand the needs of their communities, and who can devise answers that meet those requirements.

In short, we need to learn from people like Helene Bramwell, who is providing safe, dignified, and environmentally-friendly chemical toilets that are being rolled out to schools in Gauteng.

The waterless toilets don’t release waste into the environment, and they have a lifespan of 50 years – they’re an effective and sustainable solution that can make a real difference at a national scale.

And we need to learn from the natural world. Ndimkile Cwete is using principles observed from nature to approach the issue of wastewater contaminating the water supply in the township of Langrug.

Cwete and other residents used biomimicry to approach the problem, constructing a network of human-designed wetlands and living gutters to absorb and break down wastewater.

Their efforts have improved soil quality for agriculture, and contributed to the rejuvenation of the nearby Berg River.

Similarly Pfarelo Ramugondo, frustrated by the polluted state of the rivers around Ha-Makhuvha Village, mobilised her community to clean and restore the precious resource.

Ramugondo organised a team of 100 volunteers to start the cleanup, in a move that had a catalytic effect: neighbouring communities followed suit, and Ramugondo was recognised by the president with an Order of the Baobab bronze award.

We live in a time of economic uncertainty. Government’s resources are stretched, and our population is growing. It’s unlikely that a top-down approach will be enough to solve our sanitation crisis.

Bramwell, Cwete, and Ramugondo have recognised this. They have created their own answers to a problem that millions of South Africans live with. It’s up to us to learn from their examples, support their work, and apply the principles they have used in our own spaces.

They’ve shown us the way towards a safe, sustainable future – now we need to make it a reality.


Defeat Poverty

Meet the South Africans With a Sustainable Answer to Our Sanitation Crisis