Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

A woman heads to an outside pit latrine toilet in Marikana, South Africa in August 2016.
Denis Farrell/AP
Water & Sanitation

South Africa Vows to Shut Down Open Pit Toilets in Schools After Tragic Drownings

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Around the world, 2.3 billion people do not have access to safe sanitation, leading to millions of deaths each year. The United Nations’ Global Goals call on countries to eradicate open defecation and you can take action on this issue here.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed to get rid of open pit latrines in schools across the country on Tuesday following numerous deaths, according to South Africa’s Eyewitness News.

Ramaphosa said an audit will be conducted of the country’s 25,000 schools over the next month, and then an infrastructure plan for replacing the latrines will be devised over the following three months. The government will then come up with a financing strategy for the project, with the partial help of private donors, and finally implement improved sanitation facilities, according to Eyewitness News.

Key financing partners of the Sanitation Appropriate for Education (Safe) program include the Nelson Mandela Foundation and UNICEF, BBC reports.

Take Action: Call on the Ugandan President to Empower Women through Sanitation

"This is an initiative that will save lives and restore the dignity of tens of thousands of our nation's children," Ramaphosa said in a statement.

"The Safe initiative reaches beyond the bricks and mortar of water and sanitation,” he added. “It seeks to contribute to building a cohesive society in which schools are the heartbeat of wholesome communities.”

Open pit latrines and the broader issue of access to water and sanitation (WASH) are problems that the government has long grappled with and delayed on. The education ministry acknowledged as much when discussing the new proposal.

“When we look at the way this particular challenge is being addressed, it’s slow,” Elijah Mhlanga, a spokesperson for ministry of education, said in a statement. “They work on the basis of what’s budgeted for.”

Read More: 'The Greatest Nightmare of Africa' Endangers Millions of Lives

The expected cost of the project will be $477 million, BBC notes.

Open pit latrines are toilets with platforms that sit above holes in the ground collecting human waste. When constructed and managed properly, they can be a step-up from more rudimentary forms of waste management like defecating in bushes or gutters, according to NPR.

The problem, however, is that open pit latrines are often poorly insulated and leak harmful substances into groundwater supplies, which can go on to infect people with deadly diseases like cholera.

In Bangladesh, for instance, high levels of rainfall cause pit latrines to overflow and pour human waste into the surrounding area, NPR reports.

People can also fall into pit latrines and drown, a problem that’s especially acute for small children, and one that South Africa knows all too well.

Read More: A World Water Day Visual Crash Course

In recent years, a number of cases of children drowning in open pit latrines have caused nationwide outrage. A 6-year old boy named Michael Komape from Chebeng Village in Limpopo fell into a pit toilet at his school and died tragically in 2014.

His tragic death helped spur a government report on WASH that found that 26% of the country, or 3.8 million households, lack access to adequate sanitation systems. Another report by the African Ministers' Council on Water found that 3.5% of the population practices open defecation.  

Across the world, 2.3 billion people don’t have access to basic sanitation, and nearly 1 billion people defecate in the open. Millions of people die from poor sanitation each year and many more are harmed by disease.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, the problem is rising, with 220 million people open defecating in 2015.

Read More: How to Observe World Toilet Day — A Crash Course on Sanitation

Since Komape’s death, calls for shutting down all open pit latrines at schools have escalated. Today, more than 4,500 schools across the country have these toilets, BBC reports.  

These calls reached a fever pitch in March when 5-year-old Lumka Mkhethwa drowned in a pit latrine in the Eastern Cape province.

“The death of a child in such an undignified manner is completely unacceptable, and incredibly disturbing,” the basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, said at the time.


The Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 is presented and hosted by The Motsepe Foundation, with major partners House of Mandela, Johnson & Johnson, Cisco, Nedbank, Vodacom, Coca Cola Africa, Big Concerts, BMGF Goalkeepers, Eldridge Industries, and associate partners HP and Microsoft.

South_Africa_admat_horiz_Yellow.png