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Despite sewage progress, Swazis still use septic tanks

Located on the outskirts of Swaziland’s commercial hub, the state-of-the-art Manzini Waste Treatment Centre was built to end the city’s sewage disposal problems. A World Bank loan was secured by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development to construct the $16-million facility: a spotless, landscaped plant that has a lifespan of 25 years.

There’s just one problem: most people in Manzini are too poor to make use of the centre.

Middle-class residents complain about having to pay plumbers and building contractors to remove their septic tanks and lay pipes for connecting homes to the sewerage system, and in turn, the plant. Concrete connection points were placed below each residential plot by the project’s supervising authority, the parastatal Swaziland Water Services Corporation.

“Who has the thousands of rands to pay for this unnecessary thing? We are happy with our backyard septic tank. We’ve had it for 30 years. The city truck pumps it out from time to time for only R100,” said Gladys Simelane, a resident of Fairview South township, a suburb on the hilltop overlooking downtown.

Septic tanks aren’t the answer, however. Certain homeowners have been remiss about emptying them, and leaking, overflowing tanks have become health hazards that the waste-treatment centre was designed to prevent.

Massive revolving arms mix anti-bacterial chemicals in sewage deposited in the plant’s large, open-air treatment pools. The waste is later pumped into a final treatment centre before being disposed of in the Mzimnene River, which runs through Manzini, with the treated water being cleaner than the river water it joins.

Nearby residents, who were financially rewarded for allowing the sewerage plant to be built in their farming community 5km south of Manzini, hardly know it is there. The electricity lines brought in to power the plant have been extended to their homesteads. But, in an inescapable irony, these same homes were not connected to sewer pipes.

The slow pace of establishing connections has caused the plant to be underutilised. Although it has the capacity to treat 250 litres of sewage a second, and can discharge 900 cubic metres of processed water an hour, the centre has not achieved this optimal usage in the two years it has been on line. To keep the plant running efficiently, treated water has to be pumped back into the system to maintain liquid levels at the required volumes in the ponds.

Plans are apparently afoot to send out notices to residents giving them a deadline to connect their homes to the sewerage system and remove septic tanks, after which they may be faced with fines for not doing so.

Of even greater concern to social welfare workers, though, are residents who are excluded from the new sanitation system entirely — and who are said to form the majority of Manzini’s inhabitants.

“Most Manzini people live in informal settlements. They are simply not recognised because their areas are not official. They have no septic tanks, no pit latrines,” said Agnes Nkambule, a home-based care supervisor for the Aids hospice group Positive People with Aids.

“When they need to go to the bathroom, they use the bush. They dump their waste water in the streams.”

Informal settlements

Officially, Manzini’s population stands at about 30 000. However, this only takes into account people who live in designated areas, on registered housing plots. Other government figures indicate that those living in informal settlements help bring the city’s population to more than 60 000.

Certain informal settlements are decades old. They include KaKhoza, named after a Mozambican storekeeper who set up his business on the western fringe of the city, providing the nucleus for an area now home to several thousand people. Madonsa settlement is on the opposite side of town, while Skum is on the river near the city centre.

“At least these places have names. The large new informal settlements sprouting up between Manzini and Matsapha are nameless. But they all have one thing in common. They are thrown-together slums: houses of wood scraps, cardboard and plastic — no water, no sanitation facilities,” said Nkambule.

The Matsapha industrial estate, 3km west of Manzini, is a magnet for job seekers from poor rural areas, where 80% of Swazis live. Only a handful of people succeed in finding jobs; the rest migrate to the informal settlements.

Cholera poses a constant threat in these settlements, and elsewhere in the city, Nkambule added.

A widespread outbreak of this disease would be particularly grave in light of Swaziland’s Aids infection rate. The National Emergency Council on HIV/Aids lists cholera as a dangerous opportunistic disease in the Southern African nation, where one out of four sexually active adults is HIV-positive: the world’s highest rate, according to the Health Ministry.

Matters have been aggravated by the worst drought in living memory, which has led to sporadic water shut-offs in formal neighbourhoods and a harder scramble for water in the city’s slums.

“At least the well-off people have access to clean water. They have electricity; they have road infrastructure and other services. The majority poor have none of these things, and so it is no wonder that they also are left out of the sewage treatment plant,” said Thamie Khumalo, a community activist who lives in a straw-roofed mud hut in KaKhoza.

A step towards addressing these difficulties is for slum areas to be transformed into formal settlements through giving title deeds to residents, after which plans can be made to provide services to the settlements.

A pilot programme to this effect has already been carried out by the Housing Ministry’s urban development programme in Msunduza, an informal settlement in the capital, Mbabane. The programme also has plans for Madonsa.

“The method is to bring these settlements into the formal town, and make the people legitimate residents,” said programme director Napoleon Ntezinde.

But connecting slums to infrastructure won’t solve the problem of poverty-stricken residents being unable to pay for services — with defaulters at risk of having their services cut.

“As far as the poor are concerned, the plan is a non-starter,” said Khumalo.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, 67% of Swazis live on less than $1 a day. The Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, an initiative of the World Health Organisation and United Nations Children’s Fund, estimates that 48% of Swazis have sanitation coverage. — IPS

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James Hall
Guest Author

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