Sanitation Coverage in Cape Town’s Informal Settlements by Gisela Kaiser

Gisela Kaiser





ROCKBlue recently had the privilege to interview specialist Gisela Kaiser and get her expert insight on the subject of sanitation, particularly in informal, high density settlements. Gisela is an accomplished management executive and professional civil engineer with 28 years’ experience in development and management of infrastructure projects and programs within a wide range of areas including local government, industrial development, higher education and retail.

Her passion lies in sustainable development – building a future that is integrated; where complex solutions are beneficial considering all stakeholders, and where development results in increased social justice, equality and environmental stewardship. Gisela worked at the City of Cape Town, during a very challenging period, as the Executive Director responsible for water, sanitation, wastewater, solid waste, and previously informal settlements, and electricity.

Can a strong argument be made to provide, at least to a limited degree, non-piped sanitation; and if so, what is the justification?

From a water security viewpoint, absolutely. The recent drought in Cape Town brought to the forefront citizens’ concern that we would think it normal to flush clear drinking water down the toilet, treat vast volumes of water and dispose back into the environment. Alternative sanitation, from a sustainability viewpoint, is what we need to aspire to. However, piped water and piped sanitation – the flush-and-forget mentality – is still the desired norm. Before we change this to become widely accepted, especially in poorer areas, there has to be an attitude shift. That is, non-piped toilets need to transform so that everybody would be happy to have one in their own home. And both the technology and cost of alternatives still has some progress to make.

Initiatives by establishments such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, clearly demonstrate that this issue is now under the global spotlight. And with climate change threatening water security, it is likely to receive even more attention. Hopefully, soon, there will be a breakthrough so that it will be socially acceptable at an individual level.

What is the decision-making process in selecting between piped sanitation/sewerage – more traditional methods – and non-piped sanitation such as faecal sludge management? Describe the decision making that occurred in the city of Cape Town between those two options?

Typically, new formal developments must pay a development charge. The City has urban city limits where it’s happy to provide services within these boundaries, provided a development charge is paid for the additional infrastructure capacity required. If someone wants a development outside of these boundaries, then the charges increase – to pay for the required new bulk infrastructure over and above planned growth. For formal, high value growth areas of the City, developers are generally willing to pay for this infrastructure. Traditionally, development charges cover the costs of conventional services bulk and reticulation infrastructure, even though the City is trying to encourage more environmentally sustainable ways of providing services. I am aware of new developments that want to go “off grid”. In general, due to constitutional obligations, a municipality is still required to extend services to these areas requiring bulk and reticulation utilities to be available.

Off-grid sanitation is similar to off-grid solar power. If there is a period of insufficient sunlight, hence no power, the homeowner would need to be connected to the grid. Similarly, if onsite sewage treatment is allowed, including a license to discharge effluent, if the private system fails the municipality would be expected to step in.

For informal settlements the challenge is greater. Generally, in Cape Town, we prefer to provide piped sanitation. The main driver is that sanitation is to be apportioned in a ratio of approximately five households per toilet. So, with about four people per household, that might mean around 20 people using a single toilet. A flush toilet is preferred largely as it is the same type of service as for households in formal settlements. And it’s a more pleasant experience to use a clean toilet and flush when you desire. While the City provide janitorial services for flush toilets, having shared toilets (especially non-flush or non-piped) remains a real challenge.

When the City becomes aware of additional houses within a settlement, and the ratio of toilets is low, the City would investigate if piped sanitation can be provided. That, of course, depends on a number of factors, including availability of existing infrastructure. If absent, it might be a lengthy period before provision of this infrastructure. If the infrastructure exists, then the second obstacle is the capital expenditure (CapEx). And, in flat areas the operating costs (OpEx) become a consideration due to the need for pumping.

Shared sanitation used in Cape Town’s informal settlements

Keep in mind that, typically, informal settlements arise on vacant land. And land is vacant for a reason. For example, either because it is part of an existing or planned servitude for roads, powerlines or other facilities such as parks. Informal settlements are often established on land that is not fit or permitted to be lived on. And, for that reason, permanent infrastructure cannot be installed. Also, a number of informal settlements are on privately owned land. And according to South Africa legislation, a municipality can’t install fixed infrastructure where they don’t own the land. From a study the City conducted a couple of years ago I seem to recall that over 80 percent of settlements were at least partially on land unsuitable for installed piped sewage. Which brings us to the non-piped situation. In Cape Town, there were approximately 5,000 chemical toilets in 2013. We tried to cap it at 5,000, but I think the number might have increased to about 7,000 as they are often quickest to roll out to new areas where required. If well maintained, chemical toilets provide a good level of service as they are typically serviced three times a week. They are quite expensive to operate due to the preferred contract mechanism being to rent the toilets from an operator who would be responsible for: a) providing the unit, and b) servicing it three times a week. In the case of vandalism or theft, it would be at their cost to replace it. From an authority viewpoint, it is easier to manage and control. But it is probably more expensive as the contractor bears the risk, and it does require road access to service the facilities. If you are going to service three times a week, it has to be accessible by the operator’s truck.

The second type of non-flush toilet that Cape Town uses is a container toilet. These are hundred-litre containers, charged with disinfectant fluid and placed in concrete structures with ventilation and a door. They look similar to full flush toilets but are used where full flush toilets can’t be installed and where there is no road access for a chemical toilet to be serviced. Container toilets can be carried out of an informal settlement, by two people per container. Once collected, they are transported for a full cleaning at Borcherd’s Quarry. After cleaning they are charged with disinfectant liquid and returned. It’s quite a labor intensive process, but by necessity an important typology due to access constraints.

The final type of toilet provided at scale in informal settlements is the portable flush toilet. The difference between chemical, containers and portable flush toilets is that a portable flush toilet is meant just for a single household. Container and chemical toilets are provided external to households and shared. The City rolled out more than 20,000 portable flush toilets and services these three times a week. These are especially useful in households with women and small children, and for use at night.

The City centralized its management of faecal sludge at Borcherd’s Quarry for reasons of economy of scale, as well as to provide the necessary infrastructure to efficiently deal with cleaning of toilets. Recently it opened a state-of-the-art faecal sludge management facility, which is, to my knowledge, the first in the world to be mechanized. In the past containers were decanted manually in a specific building at the plant. This is now done in a closed system for both PFT’s and container toilets, where they are emptied, washed and disinfected mechanically. Thus, faecal sludge management is probably one of the smaller challenges Cape Town faces with this improved facility.

In my view, the most significant challenge to improving sanitation to informal households is societal. It is challenging (and time-consuming) to agree on an acceptable sanitation solution for each community; a solution which is also possible, and affordable, to roll-out across the City. Critical is that the community takes ownership of it, manages it and operates the system to the satisfaction of the entire community.

How did you handle the cross-subsidization costs of toilets?

Full flush toilets are the cheapest form of shared sanitation to maintain due to lower operating costs. But if you consider the entire value-chain including wastewater treatment works and fixed infrastructure, the costs add up. The cost of non-piped sanitation is quite well-defined and ring-fenced due to services being contracted. National Treasury Equitable Share is an unconditional grant which provides funding to all municipalities for direct use for the poor – informal settlement sanitation in Cape Town is mainly covered by this grant. Another important matter on how Cape Town water & sanitation finances function: approximately 40 percent of households do not pay for water and sanitation. Hence the overall pricing structure has to cover those households who do not pay. That is, the revenue that comes from the 60 percent of households who do pay as well as industry, commerce, etc. plus the grant subsidy from National Treasury must cover all expenditure on the water & sanitation service to the metropolitan region.

Constructing individual toilets is not hugely expensive as a component of household construction, but the scale matters. A flushed toilet and associated equipment come to about R10,000. So, if you consider an operating budget of around 6 billion Rand a year and a capital budget of around R3-4 billion. The R10,000 for a toilet is miniscule. Hence the cost of providing toilets to everyone in an informal household has never been the main obstacle. Where it would become an obstacle is if the City had to serve every household with their own full flush toilet. The reason is the resultant increase in water usage and concomitant bulk water, bulk and reticulation infrastructure, metering, accounting and administering. The City currently serves by about a fifth of that number with full flush toilets. If the City introduced close to 140,000 full flush toilets and house connections overnight the burden would be unmanageable, one that couldn’t be met in the short-term. But, as the City grows naturally and if households can be “formalized”, I believe that the financial structure should be able to absorb it.

Keep in mind that South Africa has a large disparity between the rich and poor. It is a known situation and it appears that citizens take this into consideration when it comes to paying for infrastructure. If you live in South Africa and you can afford to pay, then you basically subsidize others that cannot and do not pay. It will be a considerable while before subsidization is phased out.

With 60 percent of the citizens paying for 40 percent of non-paying citizens, have there been any legal actions taken against the City. And, has there ever been a drive to move these numbers; say from 40 percent to 30 percent non-paying?

To my knowledge, there hasn’t been legal action on this specific point. Perhaps this is because the cost of water and sanitation is still relatively cheap compared to other services such as electricity or mobile phones and data. Arguably the City for is doing what is considered the “right thing” by providing basic services for free to those who cannot pay.

When it came to subsidization of electricity, the City also tried to be fair to multiple stakeholders such as the poor as well as commercial property developers. You don’t want to scare off investors by exorbitant subsidization.

In answer to your second question, a number of households are just above the “indigent” category – where indigent refers to those assessed with a property value of Rand 400,000 or less. That’s probably much higher than in the rest of the country because Cape Town property values are higher. There is also an “indigent” category based on monthly income. There are currently approximately 270,000 indigent households (2018) and that’s over and above the 180,000 informal households. From a pro-poor perspective, the City annually assesses what qualifies as “indigent”. Over time this exercise results in an increase in the number of indigent households. There were also a large number of households that have a property value between the R400,000 and R1,000,000. These households commonly struggle to pay bills. Thus, the answer to your question, in the medium term, is no.

An interim solution is to look for economic benefits of providing sanitation business opportunities. And to provide models and mechanisms so that sewage is seen to have value in terms of energy as is done elsewhere in the world. Cape Town has been criticized for being a bit of a nanny municipality – giving too much for free. But our history has created the current political environment where it’s difficult to motivate for less subsidization. The overarching feeling seems to be that the State has to provide basic services and do this for free. It’s going to take longer than my lifetime to move this notion and where South Africa can get people more interested in a “sanitation economy”. That will be the time when everybody is willing to pay, even just a little. Certainly, that could make an enormous difference.

What are the primary obstacles to non-piped sanitation? What do you feel are the top obstacles for non-piped sanitation?

The first is acceptability by both wealthier/formal and informal/poorer households. The second is in shared use toilets. As soon as something is shared, there’s little ownership or care. And people battle to manage and maintain the toilets when accessible by others. It would be great if the technology were such that a toilet could flush and assimilate whatever is flushed down, including non-conventional toilet paper. For example, a toilet that does not take up much space, and is a closed water system could be added within an enclosed cubicle attached to an informal structure. The same water could simply circulate, cleaned and used again to flush. And the faecal content could be vaporized into the energy required to keep the system going. We are some distance from this utopian solution being affordable.

I don’t think that faecal sludge management (FSM) at the moment in Cape Town is the biggest problem. Even though FSM creates employment opportunities, it’s not the most sought after job.

In summary, in South Africa, acceptability of non-piped sanitation is the main obstacle.

For utilities reluctant to extend sanitation, opting instead to focus on water, can you provide the justification for increasing the emphasis on sanitation?

First, this is not my perception of what happens in Cape Town, although it is a politicized matter and a powerful protest tool. In Cape Town, sanitation has possibly been less ignored than elsewhere.

The main reason for more emphasis on sanitation is that it is critical to human dignity and health. Also, in the early development of children, having a clean, acceptable toilet is hugely important. Its impact on society is such that is it is well worth the investment in improving the entire sanitation experience.

Sanitation is complex and multi-faceted. To many professionals, the water side is more attractive. But sanitation, and I witnessed this with my staff, is a field that generates a great deal of enthusiasm. Using sanitation as political tool is seldom useful. The fact is, all human beings use the toilet every day. And those who have raised children, particularly women, know first-hand the role that the toilet plays. So, by pretending that it’s somebody else’s problem, and not each one of ours, has not helped. Flush-and-forget should be removed from the human psyche. Citizens must be made aware of sanitation so that they give it more consideration and take it less for granted.

Why are more women engaged on the sanitation side of the equation vs. men?

Perhaps it’s because women are uniquely aware of its role. It’s a reality that can’t be ignored. And women might have greater empathy and be able to imagine what not having access to a clean, safe toilet means. Also, in the Western world, for men and women, sanitation is not something that people think about often or really see. But until we adequately address sanitation, our society is not going to get closer to approaching equality.

What would you list as the top challenges to extending sanitation to the informal settlements, the high-density communities, and how do you overcome those challenges?

As indicated earlier, in my view the first challenge is social. We need to build community cohesion and public trust. To undertake any project in an informal settlement takes an enormous amount of time. And then, if there is a leadership change, one often has to start the participation process again. Our social structures are currently not strong enough at best, or entirely lacking. It doesn’t take much of a negative impact or voice to completely break down the trust between the State and a community. And politics, especially in Cape Town, can wreak havoc on increasing sanitation service and coverage. The State needs to deal with this holistically. It’s about building trust so that people can be on the same page and understand that a municipality is trying to help when providing services.

The typical denisty of high density areas

The second one I would like to focus on is high density areas. It is difficult to illustrate without a photograph. But if you live in an informal settlement of a thousand square meters (the size of a plot in an affluent suburb), there could be between 20 and 30 households. Often the dwelling walls are shared; or at most there is a half a meter walkway between structures. Now, imagine digging a trench and then laying a water pipe or a sewer pipe, with system of manholes, valves, pump-stations. Multiply this by all the households in Cape Town. And what if there were to be a watermain burst? The municipality cannot relocate people unless it has other land for acceptable housing, and that which households the displaced are happy to move to. Hence, the issue of dense settlements is an enormous barrier.

The third one is not a water and sanitation issue but a housing issue. People need better housing opportunities. And for that, an enormous amount of land and money is required.

This takes a huge management effort and people need to be able to pay. The South African model of providing everybody with an RDP house free of charge or a service stand takes so much land, at such a huge infrastructure cost. South Africa still has plenty of land, but it is not well-located to economic opportunities. A possible “silver bullet” to sanitation is if a donor (e.g., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) developed something that is easy to use, small and able to withstand harsh conditions. Perhaps, as alluded to earlier, a capsule that one could attach to every informal structure, that is a self-sustaining, to provide reasonable sanitation at a household level. Other than that, in my view, we are going to have to solve the housing problem to enable the informal areas to be formalized with adequate services.