Insufficient sanitation services characterise all informal settlements and some low-income areas in South Africa. Cape Town is no exception, where local frustration around lack of service delivery has boiled over into “poo protests.” In their 2016 study McFarlane and Silver explore how these protests gave rise to new social movements in Cape Town that recognise apartheid spatial planning has not been remediated, resulting in constant indignity of inadequate water and sanitation services. Water is dignity!
Without adequate housing in the city, many householders in low-income areas have built backyard dwellings, resulting in more people living in an area than the sewerage system was planned to serve. Toilet facilities are vastly overused and suffer continual breakdowns and damage. Some of this damage is due to vandalism, but is mostly simply the result of huge pressure on the hardware from overuse. When there are, say, 60 persons to a working toilet, then no hardware can cope with such a burden for long before breaking down. This can lead to sewage spills. When it rains, stormwater picks up the excess sewage, either through run-off from areas of open defecation, or through direct dumping of sewage into drains. This untreated wastewater then contaminates water bodies, affecting biodiversity and nearby communities.
As part of her Master’s research study, Faith Gara documented experiences around water of residents in the Hangberg and Imizamo Yethu neighbourhoods of Hout Bay. Her work contributes to a water-sensitive design for a “Liveable” neighbourhood in Hout Bay, and forms part of the transdisciplinary Liveable Neighbourhoods Project. Sanitation challenges in these two areas stem from ageing infrastructure, insufficient housing and lack of properly installed and planned sewage systems.
In the informal area in Imizamo Yethu, the City provides communal taps and shared toilets – (both flushing and chemical toilets). However, these sanitation facilities are a subject of contestation, as residents demand dignified sanitation services. Some communal flushing toilets do not function properly and have broken doors, and no lighting while the chemical toilets are mostly always overfilled. Shared sanitation facilities are also not safe to use in the dark, especially for women and children, leaving residents to use a bucket to relieve themselves in the night. These buckets are sometimes emptied in bushes or stormwater drains as the toilets are usually occupied in the mornings when residents are preparing for the day. Plastic bags containing sewage are also often disposed of into the solid waste skip (large communal container for rubbish). Thus the solid waste in many under-serviced townships is suffused with sewage.
Areas with high population density and limited services contribute a huge amount of pollutants and effluent from household chemicals, dirty drains, piles of rubbish, bacteria in faecal waste and other contaminants from human waste are often in the streets from the broken down sewage systems. These pollutants are washed into surface water bodies through stormwater runoff. They also seep into the soils, plants and atmosphere and groundwater facilities. Impacts of this toxic mixture, exacerbated by changing weather systems that lead to flooding and fire disasters, remain a huge concern for human health and ecological wellbeing. Studies show that areas like Imizamo Yethu falls within a high-risk health category, and an informal settlement without sanitation effectively recreates apartheid’s segregation practices.