About one million of eThekwini’s 3.5 million residents live in informal settlements and have no access to proper water and sanitation services. In response, the eThekwini municipality has developed communal ablution blocks that are improving the quality of life for many.

The communal ablution block (CAB) project was initiated in 2009 by the eThekwini Department of Water and Sanitation (EWS) to provide a sustainable water and sanitation solution that would address the temporary nature of informal settlements. Phase 3 of the project started in September 2015. Each CAB site consists of two modified shipping containers (male and female) providing toilets, showers and washing facilities, as well as an urban space where economic and social activities are encouraged. Intensive engagement with local communities ensured their acceptance so that the facilities are sustainable in future.

So far 1350 CAB units have been installed in 350 settlements. Surveys conducted during 2010/11 showed the CABs had significantly improved the lives of 82.2% of households. In 2015, the project was recognised with an African Utility Week award.

Project background

Informal settlements are often perceived as “places of transition” because many of the residents eventually move into formal housing, explains Teddy Gounden, project manager at EWS responsible for community education and social concerns for the CAB project. “There was a general reluctance in the past to provide any form of permanent water and sanitation facilities,” he says. The only services provided were a few standpipes. Grey water run-off from the standpipes ran through the settlements and open defecation, contributing to storm water pollution. Over time these settlements expanded exponentially as people seeking employment opportunities in the city moved into the area, putting pressure on an already broken system. Various types of communal ablution facilities were provided in the past but were rarely successful, says Gounden. A lack of space, access, privacy, water for washing of hands, security (such as adequate lighting), proper maintenance, as well as vandalism, usually led to an early breakdown of these facilities.

A lack of proper sanitation contributes to the spread of water borne diseases and the connection between a dirty environment and health is not often understood by the community. Without education and a proper buy-in, residents revert to their old ways.

A sustainable solution

Each CAB facility services about 50 households in a 200m radius. The municipality provides bulk services, including plumbing and drainage, which are encased in a concrete plinth. The containers can be connected and installed in about two days, explains Sid Mtshali, project executive at EWS responsible for CAB rollouts. A lighting mast is installed in each precinct to provide security at night, and illuminates the container through skylights in the roof. Vandalism and theft is a problem and containers provide a robust, hardwearing solution that saves on building materials. Geysers have not been installed and only cold water is supplied to the showers.

Caretakers (many of them women) are employed to keep the facilities clean and secure, and replace consumables such as soap and toilet paper. They are paid to work for four hours per day. A technical operations and maintenance team is available via a call centre should there be infrastructural problems.

Investment in bulk service infrastructure forms part of the city’s long-term vision for housing (in conjunction with the Human Settlements Department), explains Gounden. Plans to replace areas of the informal settlements with formal housing in future means bulk infrastructure will already be in place when required. However the “lock-up and go” nature of a shipping container allows the CABs to be moved to another site and reused when necessary. “Therefore the asset is not wasted,” Gounden emphasises. Formal housing has already been built on several sites and the CABs have been moved to new locations. Funding has been provided mainly from the municipality and the Urban Settlement Development Grant (USG), as well as national government’s Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) programme, which helps to pay the salaries of construction workers and caretakers.

Prior to installing a CAB, land tenure must be acquired, which can be a challenge, says Mtshali. In some cases the land is privately owned and it is difficult to contact the owner. Sometimes the topography of the land is complex (the area is typically hilly), which requires stepped platforms or pump stations to be installed. Trucks cannot access some areas to deliver the containers and in these instances modular prefabricated units have been installed instead. Despite the containers requiring little in situ construction work, the labour intensive nature of site clearing (no graders were used) and bulk installation components has created employment for 3500 local people to date, covered by the EPWP subsidy.

The containers are serviced by municipal water and sewerage networks, but extensive research is being conducted to find innovative solutions for waste water reclamation and off-grid sanitation solutions. “We are looking at the treatment of waste water using an anaerobic baffled reactor, which will be located beyond the urban development edge,” says Chris Buckley, head of the Pollution Research Group based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Engineering, which has been involved in this research for about five years.

Community engagement

The community liaison process followed before the CABs were installed involved direct communication with every household and community leadership, Gounden explains. A previous lack of proper communication caused initial reluctance to any kind of new intervention and many residents feared this “temporary” solution would replace the promise of future formal housing. Therefore the process had to be carefully explained.

While the CABs are unremarkable at first sight, and providing facilities may seem like an obvious and simple solution, they address a very layered and complex problem that affects residents’ quality of life every day. The South African Human Rights Commission 2014 Water and Sanitation Report states that, “Water is life. Sanitation is dignity”. This is a reality that the CAB project strives to accomplish.

By Mary Anne Constable

For the full article, see earthworks magazine Issue 29, December 2015/January 2016.