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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Zambia's Flying Toilets

Not literally "flying", but thats the facetious name for the use of plastic bags for defecation, which are then thrown into ditches, on the roadside, or simply as far away as possible. A recent IRIN report paints the deplorable picture in our nation. Corruption and lack of funding have undermined the push for adequate drainage systems, leading to situation where contact with human excreta in dense settlement is order of the day. The other point of course is these again are issues that immediately impacts on the most vulnerable (children, women, etc). We have touched on this issue before (see here and here).  Statistics on rural - urban access to health facilities can be found here.

Charity Muyumbana, 45, has spent her entire adult life contending with recurrent flooding, poor drainage, and a lack of toilets in Kanyama, the sprawling Lusaka township where she lives. “Most of the people use plastic bags to relieve themselves during the night. They find it more convenient because some toilets are up to 200m away from the house,” she told IRIN.

The situation in Kanyama represents a countrywide problem. According to a 2008 study by local NGO the Water and Sanitation Forum, only 58 percent of Zambians have access to adequate sanitation and 13 percent lack any kind of toilet. While the government has improved water and sanitation in urban areas, this is not the case in unplanned, high density peri-urban settlements like Kanyama where residents complain that lack of space and poor soil make it difficult to construct latrines, and a haphazard road network has contributed to a serious drainage problem. The over-used existing latrines attract vermin, and in the rainy season overflowing sewage pollutes wells causing water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery and cholera.

A 2006 study of the water supply and sanitation situation in 570 peri-urban and low-income areas of Zambia carried out by the National Water Supply and Sanitation Council, a government agency, found that Kanyama was by no means unique. The links between poor sanitation and poor health are well known, said Amanda Marlin from international NGO, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council. “Sanitation at a basic level is making sure we separate human excreta from any contact by people or by animals.”


Kanyama’s poor drainage has made it prone to cholera during the rainy season, but a partially completed project by the government to construct a proper drainage system in the township was abandoned in October 2010.

According to research by the Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR), a local network of civil society organizations which advocates pro-poor development policies, the Treasury allocated 20 billion Zambian kwacha (US$4.05 million) for the construction of the drainage system, but only a fraction of that amount was paid to the contractor who completed about a third of the project.

The abandoned construction site has created another problem for the residents of Kanyama, said Diana Ngula of CSPR. “During the rainy season, water collects in those holes, creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes.”

She added that there had been no attempt by the government to investigate the apparent misappropriation of funds. Other observers note that 90 percent of Zambia’s water and sanitation budget comes from development partners including the World Bank and Water Aid. “It would be pleasing to see government step up in terms of its own budget line,” said Barbara Kazimbaya-Senkwe, a water and sanitation specialist at the World Bank which has loaned the government $22 million to improve water and sanitation systems in Lusaka Province.

She added that the government had put in place a number of policies to improve the delivery of water, especially in rural areas, where, according to the World Bank, only 13 percent of the population has access to good sanitation facilities, and 58 percent to clean drinking water. One reform has been the removal of water budgets from local councils to ensure money is ring-fenced for the purpose of extending supply networks. “The reform process has yielded some positive developments, but I can say there is still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Kazimbaya-Senkwe told IRIN.

Evans Chinyemba, a Catholic bishop in the Mongu Diocese in impoverished Western Province, said the water issue was “one that needs to be paid attention to”. “We have a lot of rivers in Western Province… I think we have not tapped into those resources so that we can provide proper water to our people,” he told IRIN. He added that while government was digging boreholes in some areas, they had not reached the whole province.

Lack of funding

Government expenditure on rural water supply remained at a low level between 2005 and 2008, according to the 2010 Public Expenditure Review, conducted by the government of Zambia, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and other cooperating partners.

A government source who asked to remain anonymous said some progress had been made in providing clean drinking water and improving sanitation. However, the biggest challenge was lack of funding. “There has been little or no progress towards the agreed target set by the government in its Fifth National Development Plan of allocating 3.5 percent of the national budget to water and sanitation. Sanitation has always been the most neglected and off-track of the Millennium Development Goals, with little funding or political will to address the crisis,” the official told IRIN.

Diseases related to poor drainage and polluted water supplies, such as malaria and diarrhoea, are major health problems in Zambia with diarrhoea accounting for nearly 7 percent of all reported illnesses and malaria claiming 50,000 lives a year (23 percent of all deaths in the country), according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).


  1. Another timely reminder, thanks Cho.
    Europe lost water- based hygiene for a thousand years after the collapse of the Roman Empire which had spread the technology far and wide.

    The post-collapse period was punctuated by plagues of disease, famine, war and misery for the masses and has become known as the "dark ages".

    Zambia is fortunate to have access to best and cheapest technology in history, coupled with the most generous global community ever. Piece of Cake with adequate cultural and political will!

  2. By the way, there is an excellent little book on organic farming in pre-revolutionary Asia, called Farmers Of Forty Centuries, by FH King.

    I've read it mostly because it gives a context to the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka, whose Natural Farming was a reaction to all the work involved in traditional Asian farming methods.

    However, it has a large section on the use of human manure and it's return to the land. Some folks believe that the reuse of humanure was the reason there were not nearly as many health epidemics in Asia, which allowed their population to grow at a more rapid pace (1.3 billion Chinese, 1 billion Indians, 150 million Japanese, etc.).

    Anyway, I'm not into humanure or animal manure, I think veganic farming is the way to go. Growing plants with plant residue, plant extracts, compost, rock dusts of various kinds and worm castings is extremely effective, and gives a very healthy result.

    However, ordinary (including human) manures can be broken down through composting, which can also make them much safer than fresh form.

    In the EU, there is a big problem with overproduction of manure from commercial farms, because of farm subsidies. Maybe there is a solution there too.

  3. Mr K says " I'm not into humanure or animal manure, I think veganic farming is the way to go."
    I understand your concerns and love your reference to my hero Fukuoka (One Straw Revolution) but it seems that total human biomass is now higher than any other large mammal in history and we're taking our nutrition from the soil without redistributing it through manure.

    This is obviously unsustainable and we need to integrate ourselves back into nature asap if our soils are to remain productive and indeed improve to cater for 9 billion people by 2050.

    ECOSANRES is a practical proposal developed at the Stockholm Institute to do exactly this in rural communities with poor sanitation.

    Science also tell us that earth's grasslands which support 90% of the world's biodiversity cannot exist without a healthy population of ruminants. They begin desertifying as soon as livestock or wildlife is removed.
    Dr Allan Savory has convinced me and many other land managers that livestock can be used to improve soils and reverse desertification if managed in a way that mimics the great herds that sustain amazing ecosystems like the Serengeti.

  4. MrK
    Overproduction of manure is not due to farm subsidies as such but to the replacement of small mixed farms with huge monocrop or single animal breed farms run by big business. Small farms use their animal manure. Huge ones produce so much in one place they cannot use it or viably transport it to where it can be used. For us in Zambia livestock manure is a way out of dependancy on imported inputs and subsidies. We have enough grazing land that we could have 100 ha of grazing or more per Ha of crops which would allow fertillization of the crops by kraaling the animals on the fields at night. There are constraints such as stock theft, high cost of fencing, and a shortage of livestock but it is sustainable and would provide protein as well as maize. Personally I sell enough manure to pay for all my livestock medication, dips and vaccines but I would like eventually to put all of it back into growing crops and grass.
    Human manure is availible in insufficient quantity to be of any significance to me.

  5. Rolf Shenton,

    it seems that total human biomass is now higher than any other large mammal in history and we're taking our nutrition from the soil without redistributing it through manure.

    I've heard the concern about the number of humans on the planet being a problem, however mainly from the Neo-Malthusian crowd. They are wrong, for the same reason Malthus was wrong - they don't count on technology. There is too much unused capacity in agriculture, to worry about overpopulation. (I wonder if the fish in the pleistocene ever got together to discuss whether there were too many fish. Or dinosaurs.)

    R. Henson,

    " MrK
    Overproduction of manure is not due to farm subsidies as such but to the replacement of small mixed farms with huge monocrop or single animal breed farms run by big business. "

    This is true. However the average farm in the EU is a mere 90 hectares. The EU however has given subsidies to prop up various agricultural sectors. In the US, farm subsidies (at the service of foreign policy) have led to massive overproduction of maize.

    There are a lot of non-till farmers, who are using plants for fertilizer. Whether that is green manuring, or mulching with straw. Basically all the nutrients required to grow a plant are present in plant remains.

    Which is why no one has ever needed to fertilize a forest.


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