/ 14 June 2024

Addressing poor sanitation in South African schools

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Pupils of Barkerville Primary School, Eastern Cape, in a creative pose in front of the newly installed Arumloo Dewdrop toilets.

Access to safe sanitation is not just a matter of comfort or convenience; it is a fundamental human right

Providing sanitary conditions to children in schools remains a pressing challenge around the world, including in South Africa. During the colloquium on school sanitation held at CSIR in Pretoria on 5 June, organised by the Department of Basic Education and the Water Research Commission, insights emerged regarding the pressing challenges facing school sanitation and the innovative solutions and approaches that could address school sanitation. 

The impact of poor sanitation exacts a devastating toll on human life. Take the tragic stories of Michael Komape and Oratile Diloane, two young children who both fell into toilets. Michael Komape, a five-year-old boy from Limpopo tragically drowned in a pit toilet at his school in 2014. His death sparked national outrage and highlighted the difficult conditions faced by many schoolchildren in South Africa. The court ordered the Limpopo Provincial Department of Education to eradicate unhygienic and unsafe toilets, and provide safe sanitation to school children. Michael’s story underscores the urgent need for safe and hygienic school sanitation facilities.

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A janitor at Celikungu Primary School, Eastern Cape, stands proudly in front of some newly installed EaziSplit toilets.

Oratile Diloane’s story is equally heartbreaking. At just four years old, Oratile fell into a school toilet. Shockingly, the school did not inform Oratile’s mother about the incident; instead, they cleaned him up and dropped him off at his mom’s gate. Had she known in time what would’ve happened, Oratile might have received help in time to avoid severe trauma. 

His mother, Refilwe Diloane, said she discovered the truth from neighbours, and that when she did ask him what happened, Oratile had recalled to her that he was scolded and sworn at by the maintenance officer when he was pulled out of the toilet by a rope. They washed his clothes and left him naked while other learners laughed at him, she said. 

The lack of proper sanitation facilities leads to dire consequences. Infants and young children are especially vulnerable to diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, and dysentery, which thrive in unsanitary conditions. According to the World Health Report, 1.4 million people die globally each year due to lack of access to drinking water and hygiene, and South Africa also has a malnutrition problem among children. This statistic reflects a harsh reality where the margin of error in sanitation can mean the difference between life and death.

According to the presentation by the acting head of Infrastructure at the Department of Education, Tsholofelo Diale, they have a lot of work ahead of them:

  • 1 ,655 schools require additional toilets.
  • 3 550 schools in the Eastern Cape need more toilets, the highest in the country.
  • 3 235 schools in KwaZulu-Natal also face severe shortages.
  • 2 065 schools in Limpopo, 1,250 in Gauteng, and 1,249 in the North West also need more toilets.
  • 71 677 additional classrooms are required to alleviate overcrowding in schools.
  • 6 319 schools have no sustainable water source.

Access to safe sanitation is not merely a matter of comfort or convenience; it is a fundamental human right. The right to life is intrinsically linked to the right to safe and adequate sanitation.

The fight for proper and dignified sanitation is a fight for the preservation of life itself. The governments and their departments, non-profit organisations, and communities must prioritise the establishment and maintenance of safe sanitation facilities, especially for children whose long-term development can be severely compromised by unsafe and unhygienic toilets. This includes not only building infrastructure that meets the challenges faced by the various communities, but also ensuring regular operations and maintenance, access to clean water, and comprehensive sanitation education.

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Pupils of Barkerville Primary School, Eastern Cape, in front of a recently installed Arumloo Dewdrop toilet, which flushes on two litres of water.

The various speakers at the colloquium and the research being conducted reveal that addressing the sanitation crisis will require a multifaceted approach. Investing money in sanitation infrastructure will be vital for the dignity and future of children’s health, and so will the buy-in from the learners, their parents, the school governing bodies, the principals and teachers, and their communities. The Department of Basic Education said they plan to develop a framework that will help them enforce the policy with consequences to ensure that all communities have access to safe, reliable, and dignified sanitation facilities.

Obstacles to maintaining existing school sanitation infrastructure

Addressing the backlog of sanitation needs requires an estimated R129 billion, with a minimum annual investment of R20 billion and an additional R23.9 billion per year for preventative and reactive maintenance. Identifying potential funding sources to bridge this deficit is essential, said Diale.

The Water Research Commission actively engaged with schools to better understand sanitation challenges. In a report by Manoko Selolo which was done for the Water Research Commission, eight schools were visited and it revealed numerous issues raised by students, including unsafe and poorly maintained facilities, lack of privacy, inadequate water, soap, toilet paper, and sanitary waste disposal bins.

The findings revealed that conditions in several visited schools were deemed unacceptable due to inadequate maintenance, and unclean and broken facilities. Where systems failed, it was due to not meeting norms and standards on the number of seats per learner, no accountability from the SGBs, learners and principals on operations and no long-term plan for maintenance. In other instances, it may be that schools may not be ready to take on innovative technology until training is provided and models for operation and maintenance are implemented. 

The lack of facility upkeep raises further concerns about menstrual hygiene and the safety of young girls. This predicament is not isolated; numerous schools across the region face similar challenges, necessitating urgent intervention. While some merely require maintenance, others are irreparably damaged, while some are inaccessible due to location and others have been ordered to close down because of the dangerous conditions.

“The schools are not using what they have been given for day-to-day maintenance correctly. It is a matter of management,” said Diale. Ensuring that these facilities are clean, functional, and safe requires ongoing effort, resources, ownership, collaboration, and coordination among various stakeholders.

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Pupils at Celikungu Primary School, Eastern Cape, in front of some newly installed EaziSplit toilets, which separate urine, solids and water for treatment in backend systems.

A key component in maintaining school infrastructure is the role of janitorial services. Regular cleaning and maintenance are essential to keep facilities in good condition and to prevent the spread of diseases. However, in many schools, particularly those in underfunded areas, janitorial services are often lacking. This leads to unsanitary conditions that can compromise the health and well-being of learners. One of the learners present at the colloquium, from Tsholetsega Primary School in Kagiso, said that the school learners make a mess and don’t flush the toilets. This highlights the importance of the presence of the janitor to remind the learners to flush and also prevent vandalism.

The colloquium also tackled whether new policies were needed for the provision of sanitation in schools, or if they simply need to align the various policies and the sections that deal particularly with sanitation in schools. There seems to be a split. Preyan Arumugam-Nanoolal notes that we may need a policy that is focused on school sanitation, however, the urgency also beckons for immediate implementation of existing frameworks for the provision of sanitation in schools. The Department of Water and Sanitation stated that the current policy covers school sanitation but perhaps the Department of Basic Education should contribute to the norms and standards currently out for comment to highlight specific school sanitation issues not covered.

Thus, current norms and standards need to be aligned and consolidated. Strengthening policies should involve promoting innovative solutions, understanding root causes, and implementing consequence management for non-compliance. Ensuring accountability within these norms and standards and making policies user-friendly are critical steps toward improving school sanitation. 

The state of sanitation in South African schools is a pressing issue that requires immediate and sustained attention. By addressing these challenges, we can create a safer and more conducive learning environment for our children, ensuring their health and wellbeing.

Towards innovative and climate-resilient sanitation

It is anticipated that rising temperatures, extreme weather, droughts, floods and sea level rise will make it even harder to provide basic sanitation services, making the need for climate-resilient sanitation all the more urgent.

“Children are already affected by the impact of climate-related events on essential services, such as water and sanitation systems, which threatens their health and wellbeing,” said Christine Muhigana, UNICEF Representative to South Africa, who has already begun involving children in international dialogues about climate resilient solutions for their sanitation. “That’s why it’s so important to share experiences, ideas and lessons learnt across countries and continents, with children and youth at the heart of discussions,” added Muhigana.

According to a UNICEF report on climate, energy and environment landscape analysis for children in South Africa released last year, environmental threats for children across South Africa, include “the increasing trend in the number of heat wave days, drought, and flooding, as well as the degradation of water and natural resources and air pollution”.

The debate between pit and water-based toilets has long been a focal point in discussions about school sanitation, particularly in regions facing severe water scarcity and unreliable electricity. While water-based toilets offer a more traditional approach, their practicality is compromised by the challenges of maintaining a consistent water supply and the costs associated with installation and upkeep, often in remote areas that do not have a reliable water supply.

Traditional flush toilets use 10-15 litres of water per flush, while modern ones use 6-8 litres, and the WRC is demonstrating more front pedestals that use less than 2 litres per flush. However, due to unreliable water supplies, flushing toilets are often not a viable option. Innovative solutions like those in the WRC SASTEP programme are testing full recycle non-sewered sanitation Next Generation Sanitation (NGS) systems, which do not require centralised sewer networks and hence offer a promising alternative. The New Generation Sanitation solution has been implemented in 48 schools across the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and Limpopo and data is currently being collected by the Water Research Commission to offer insights that would help improve sanitation implementation in schools by DBE.

The New Generation toilets function similarly to conventional flush toilets at the front end but safely treat waste on-site, allowing for safe reuse or disposal. “The user experience must be the same on the front end. The back end of what happens to the ‘poo’ is the engineer’s problem, and engineers must not waste the poo, it has use,” says Garry Quilling, project manager and consultant. Despite their benefits, the implementation of these technologies can be hindered by financial and logistical challenges, as well as South Africa’s inability to implement centralised management of operations and maintenance across schools.

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A janitor at Khanyisani Primary School, in Bizana, Eastern Cape, inspects a newly installed NEWgenerator toilet system.

For instance, maintaining these advanced systems can incur significant costs. A prepaid electricity bill for a facility using such a system can amount to as much as R5 000, one deputy principal from Tirelo Primary School reported. This expense can be a substantial burden for schools already struggling with limited budgets, but these systems can also be retrofitted to renewable energy options.

New-generation sanitation systems, while innovative, are not without their challenges. These systems can be off-grid, using solar or other renewable energy, since electricity is a concern in areas plagued by frequent load shedding. While solar power offers a potential solution, its initial setup costs are prohibitively high for many institutions.

“These solutions aim to reduce the current high cost per toilet seat, enhance safety, and provide the next generation of learners with hygienic and dignified sanitation facilities,” said Water Research Commission’s researcher, Ednah Mamakoa.

The Water Research Commission has vetted six of these alternative solutions as part of the study, ensuring they effectively address the current sanitation challenges faced by schools. Some of these solutions have already been implemented in 48 schools nationwide, showcasing their practicality and effectiveness.

The Water Research Commission has developed a new financing tool to help South African schools address their ongoing water and sanitation challenges, specifically regarding toilet facilities for young children, presented at the colloquium by Dr Marlene van der Merwe-Botha. This tool, essentially an advanced spreadsheet application, allows schools to accurately estimate the costs associated with 16 alternative sanitation solutions, including existing solutions.

The tool enables schools to calculate various cost structures, including the cost per seat per year and cost per learner per unit and allows for comparison so that the schools can implement accordingly. It also considers additional expenses related to the development and maintenance of these sanitation structures. By inputting specific variables such as location and water availability, the spreadsheet tool can determine the most suitable conditions for implementing new toilet facilities. The tool includes a lifecycle analysis for each project, indicating how long an investment will last before needing replacement.

The costing tool is designed to be user-friendly, encouraging schools to adopt these innovative technologies. As it continues to be developed and refined, the tool aims to make it easier and more appealing for schools to transition to these new, more sustainable sanitation systems ensuring a safer and healthier environment for all learners.

“This toolbox will be centred on the needs of South African children, meet the aspirations of communities, and narrow the inequality gap in service delivery,” said Mamakoa.

Effective maintenance of these technologies also depends on coordination between different levels of government. A teacher from the North West province reported that the provincial department failed to intervene or support the maintenance of new facilities, citing that the national department had not been actively involved in the implementation. This disconnect highlights the need for better communication and collaboration to ensure that schools receive the support they need.

Welcome Mandla Lishivha is a journalist and author of Boy On The Run

Overcoming sanitation challenges with innovative solutions

The Water Research Commission has entered into a five-year memorandum of agreement to support the Department of Basic Education with water and sanitation solutions through research and innovation. This partnership focuses on developing new technologies for water and sanitation provision, co-developing a next-generation sanitation technology toolbox for South African schools, and promoting the adoption of innovative sanitation technologies.

The impact of climate change means that not everyone can access water, and it is unlikely that new sources will become available soon, if at all. Therefore, we must maximise our current resources and find adaptable solutions to meet the unique challenges facing various regions.

The Water Research Commission, drawing on insights from students and teachers, offers several key recommendations to enhance school sanitation. These include integrating hygiene and sanitation education into the school curriculum to raise awareness and instil good practices from a young age. Creating safe and private spaces that ensure the dignity, safety and comfort of girls, and providing access to sanitary products and proper disposal facilities for menstrual waste is crucial. 

Dr Valerie Naidoo of the Water Research Commission also recommends advocating for policies and practices that build and prioritise sustainable institutional models and practices for school sanitation and encourage collaboration with communities and the private sector to maximise funding and resources for operations and maintenance. Establishing a school sanitation citizen science type of digital app or platform where students and parents can report poor sanitation conditions will enable prompt responses. Adopting community involvement models, such as the Japanese system where students and parents take turns maintaining school toilets, can foster a sense of responsibility and ownership of the facilities, stated Manoko.