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Malawi – Urban Dwellers Adopting Dry Sanitation

Aug 7, 2010: Lilongwe – Diarrhoea causes more deaths than malaria and AIDS combined, yet while funding to fight the latter two have risen sharply, the same cannot be said of resources available for hygiene, sanitation and clean drinking water.

The United Nations Children’s Fund says 12,000 Malawian children die due to diarrhoea-related diseases every year.

In the densely-populated areas on the outskirts of the Malawian capital, Lilongwe, there is urgent need for clean toilets and safe drinking water: but so crowded are these neighbourhoods, there is hardly room to construct them.

Mgona is one such informal settlement. An estimated 36,000 people crowded into a tiny space near an abandoned railway line. People here make a living as best they can – selling vegetables, running small shops; charging other residents to watch bootlegged Hollywood, Nigerian and Chinese movies.

Few here can afford houses made of cement blocks or adobe. Access to proper toilets is almost unheard of.

Or it was before international non-governmental organisation WaterAid and a local NGO partner called Training Support for Partners began training community members to build composting toilets called Skyloos.

The toilets consist of two brick-pits, with a concrete slab covering them and a metal access cover at the rear. Waste drops through a hole in the slab into one of the pits, and ash from cooking fires is regularly thrown on top. The ash raises the alkalinity and along with high temperatures from the sun shining on the metal covers, kills off harmful pathogens; the toilets are remarkably smell-free, attracting few flies.

When one pit fills up, users switch to using the other. The faeces decompose into a safe, rich fertiiser which is dug out and used to grow crops. The empty chamber is then ready for re-use.

The whole structure is topped with a baked brick enclosure to protect privacy. Falesi Jeffrey is a local business woman. She notes approvingly how little space the toilets require.

“We can harvest manure after six months, the waste is mixed with ash and soil to harden, then it is ready for use,” she explains.

WaterAid says that a staggering 80 percent of African countries are currently behind schedule to meet the Millennium Development Goal sanitation target, yet simple and cost-effective programmes that deliver sanitation and hygiene can not only cut diarrhoea cases, but also significantly reduce other causes of child death such as under-nutrition and pneumonia.

Martin Meke, a WaterAid programme officer in Malawi, says that by empowering communities to construct their own toilets, the people are in a strong position to sustain the project, taking charge of improving their quality of life.

The toilets cost nothing to maintain, other than community members’ applying ash, and digging the fertiliser out when it’s ready.
“These people are able to take the water and sanitation programmes and own them, they are also able to teach their fellow community members, thereby making water and sanitation achievable,” Meke noted.

Esther Sakala, one of many who has built her own toilet, vividly remembers the pain of the death of her four-month old grandchild due to diarrhoea.

“I rushed with the baby to the hospital, but all efforts failed and the baby died just two days after contracting diarrhoea,” she says. “With the coming of these toilets, I urge government to invest more resources in these modern toilets, so that we can reduce deaths.”

The Lilongwe Water Board, the government parastatal in charge of water and sewerage in the capital, seems to have heard the complaints and plans to launch a four-year water and sanitation project with financial support from the European Union, which will complement the work already undertaken by NGOs in this area.


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