Monday, May 19, 2014

Nature Calls: Kampala's Overflowing Toilets

Sam Loewenberg, a reporter whose travel to Uganda was funded by the Pulitzer Prize Center on Crisis Reporting, describes the current situation for fecal sludge management in Kampala in his article published by Aljazeera America.  An excerpt is below -- read the full story here:

KAMPALA, Uganda — For many Americans, the idea of waiting even one day to get their toilet fixed is unbearable. Last month Florence Asiimwe, a mother of three who lives in the Bwaise Kazo zone of Kampala, had to wait six weeks for hers to be serviced. In the meantime, her family used a neighbor’s facilities. On the day the latrine was finally being fixed, she said simply, “I am very happy,” and went back to washing her laundry on the stoop of her small brick home.

 Asiimwe’s long wait will be familiar to the residents of Bwaise Kazo, one of the biggest and oldest slums in Uganda’s capital. According to the Kampala Capital City Authority, more than 70 percent of the city’s 1.3 million people rely on pit latrines, or outhouses. But pit latrines fill up. It might take six months or a few years, depending on where they were built, how well they drain and how many people use them, but they will fill up. And in 2015, an estimated 10 percent will be full.

The problem is that in the overbuilt patchwork of brick and scrap-metal houses that make up the slums, there is no easy way to empty the latrines. People make do but not very well. There is water, but the supply is inconsistent, and the slum dwellers pay 10 times as much for their water than do people with piped water in their homes. There are roads, but they are not paved. There are latrines, but they fill up. Sewage removal trucks cannot navigate the narrow dirt and mud streets, and most people could not afford them anyway.

Hence the Gulper, a two-meter-long PVC and stainless steel hand pump used to empty latrines. As Asiimwe does her laundry, her 2-year-old boy, David, is out back, watching as two men in blue uniforms pump out the latrine sludge into plastic canisters, which they then load onto a truck to take to Kampala’s only sewage treatment plant, in Bugolobi, about a mile from the city center. The smell as they remove the sludge is nauseating, but the process appears fairly clean, all things considered.

 The idea of turning sanitation into a small business in Kampala originated with Water for People, a Denver-based nonprofit that brought the Gulper to the city by contracting with a local manufacturer to make and sell it. The group fosters grass-roots water and sanitation projects in eight other African and Latin American countries. Water for People recruited and trained entrepreneurs who wanted to start Gulper businesses. Now the nonprofit is working with the entrepreneurs to try to set up an association and certification scheme. After just one year, the businesses in Kampala are self-sustaining or at least trying to be.

British engineer Steven Sugden, who now works for Water for People, invented the Gulper while doing research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2003. Though the manually operated pump is a simple piece of equipment, it has succeeded where trucks and big infrastructure have failed, and in bringing accessibility and relative affordability to sludge removal, the new technology has made sanitation available to Kampala residents like Asiimwe. 

After years of working on a range of technocratic and bureaucratic schemes in community sanitation, Sugden says this free-market approach of Gulper entrepreneurs seems to work best. “I’ve come to sanitation as a business not because it is the perfect solution but because everything else I’ve tried has failed,” he says. “We try and have as light a touch as possible, as we know the risks of NGO involvement screwing up the market. We want to remain invisible so we can disappear completely when the market starts to mature.”

1 comment:

  1. I am one such American that finds even waiting one day to have my toilets fixed unbearable. I realize I should be able to wait it out, but I simply cannot. Perhaps I need to be more flexible.
    Cynthia |