At the heart of Mtandile, a Lilongwe slum plagued by poor sanitation and hygiene, hangs a shabby looking pit-latrine or mildly put, its semblance.
Made of thick grass bound together by dry bamboo and nylon twine thread, it is rickety, unroofed and exposing—stripping off its users’ dignity.
“It is hell in there when it rains as you can see it is not roofed,” laments Melifa Mbewe, whose family co-uses the toilet.
The facility’s other end leans perilously on the dirty wall of a nearby house. Inside, the floor is extensively muddy dotted with patches of cement concrete remnants.
Its yawning hole is uncovered and a turf of moss is seen creeping around, creating a safe haven for widely visible fat greenish house flies, the ever-willing diarrheal disease carriers.
Yet, it was not supposed to be like this as countries today mark the United Nations sanctioned World Toilet Day.
The special day inspires action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and reach billions still living without safely managed sanitation.
Back in Mtandile, the stench from the pit-latrine is vomit-inducing, much so when you are crossing its entrance that is draped in a stained white sack with a black plastic paper extension.
Two families with a total membership of nine, also use the toilet as a bathroom, according to Mbewe.
Shove aside its usefulness, the 27-year-old also views it as a potential death trap for her under-five son, her only child.
“Firstly, we have to make sure he stays away from it because it’s easy for him to fall into the pit-latrine. Secondly, the bathroom is, in hygiene terms,” Mbewe, who rents the house, quips.
As the facility remains unroofed and largely made of mud concrete floor, it is prone to collapse, a challenge facing millions of pit-latrines in the country, according to a recently published study by the England based International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
The national survey evaluated over 200 000 sanitary facilities and concluded that the high rate of pit-latrine abandonment threatens to contaminate the country’s ground water and trigger disease outbreaks.
Titled the Status of Sanitation in Malawi: Is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.2 achievable? The research report was published on the Research Gate website a fortnight ago.
“We estimate that between 2020–2070, 31.8 million pit-latrines will be filled and abandoned, representing a major challenge for the safe management of abandoned latrines…a potential for long-term impacts on the groundwater quality, and a significant loss of investment in sanitary infrastructure,” reads the report in part.
According to the British Geological Survey website, earthwise.bgs.ac.uk, 65 percent of the Malawi population depends on groundwater for domestic supply: in rural areas, this rises to 82 percent, while in urban areas it is closer to 20 percent.
The study established that the key cause of abandonment is collapse of the latrines with the users opting to replace them with new structures.
“The reasons for which a latrine was abandoned were also examined. The most common reasons latrines were abandoned were collapse from rainfall [55.7 percent], filling up [30.2 percent], and replacement by a new facility [10.7 percent].
“Other reasons included abandonment due to proximity to a water-point [1.0 percent], lack of money to pay a pit-emptier/ builder [1.4 percent], and lack of technical knowledge to build a new latrine [0.9 percent],” the report reads.
Meanwhile, the report calls for promotion of pit-latrine management skills that stretch the lifespan of the facilities’ lifespans.
“Techniques such as pit-latrine emptying have the potential to expand the lifespan of pit-latrines, thereby limiting the pit-latrine construction needed to simply replenish the existing stock,” it further reads.
The mismanagement of pit-latrines, the researchers who included the director of sanitation and hygiene in the Ministry of Water and Sanitation Modesta Kanjaye, warn threaten to derail the country’s bid to meet the SDG Goal 6.2.
The United Nations sanctioned goal compels governments to, by 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.
The report reads: “For Malawi to meet the international and national goals for sanitation provision, the rate of development of sanitary infrastructure will need to increase.
“Pit-latrines remain the primary sanitation system in Malawi, with 85.3 percent of the population using pit-latrines as their toilet facility.”
The research collaborators included the United Kingdom based University of Strathclyde’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the James Hutton Institute.
Meanwhile, Kamuzu University of Health Sciences public health and epidemiology professor Adamson Muula has concurred with the research findings, warning that if left unattended the country could perpetually suffer from waterborne diseases such as cholera.
“This is a recipe for disaster, especially among the urban residents. The issue is that the recommended distance between a toilet and a water well is supposed to be 20 metres. However, this is not followed in urban setup due to land challenges,” he says.
Another slum in Lilongwe’s Area 50 bears testimony to Muula’s assertions as water wells are surrounded by pit-latrines as close as five metres. It was less surprising that it was among the hubs of cholera outbreak that ravaged the country this year.
Reacting to the study outcomes, Ministry of Water and Sanitation principal secretary Elias Chimulambe acknowledged the threat posed by the pit latrines mismanagement.
He said currently, the ministry is formulating a policy that seeks to tackle the outlined challenges.
He said: “What we are doing is to come up with a policy that would lead to implementation of a number of issues of sanitation to be done in the right manner.
“One of the issues is management of non-sewer, which is talking about how we manage our pit latrines. The policy will guide us on technology.”
Among the technologies, Chimulambe said is a new pit-latrine for urban areas.
“These are designs that are going to be emptied whenever they are full. The current crop of pit latrines are those ones when they are full you just bury them without considering protection of our water resource.
“What we have done is that the toilets are lined up from the bottom and put up some access for emptying,” he said.
The principal secretary further said the National Water Resources Authority, which is a regulator for water resources, is also working on measures that seek to enforce adherence to guidelines for “disposing and managing human waste.
“There’s a team that is being employed ,which will be working with the Ministry of Health to look into dumping and disposal of human waste,” he stated.