Access to quality sanitation is a basic human right
Spatial planning legacy, corruption and maladministration have exacerbated problem
THE UN defines human rights as “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status”. The rights of all humans extend to the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and in South Africa, human rights also extend to the right of access to basic water supply and sanitation.
This right was reinforced in the Grootboom Constitutional Court case judgment of October 4, 2000, when Section 26(1) of the Bill of Rights which states that “everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing” was extended to include the provision of water and removal of sewage.
In corroboration, Section 3 of the Water Services Act 108 of 1997 states that “everyone has a right of access to basic water supply and sanitation” and the act defines basic sanitation as: “the prescribed minimum standard of services necessary for the safe, hygienic and adequate collection, removal, disposal or purification of human excreta, domestic wastewater and sewage from households, including informal households.”
However, the right to sanitation is not universally recognised, hence South Africa is one of the few nations globally wherein the right to sanitation is enshrined in the Constitution. While the UN , through the Millennial Developmental Goals (MDGs) and its successor, the Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs), strove to drive the importance of sanitation universally, many of the indigent in poor countries still lag behind their counterparts in developed countries in respect to adequate basic sanitation.
Despite being enshrined in the Constitution, access to improved sanitation in South Africa is not afforded to the entirety of the citizenry, especially those who live in informal settlements. This is evident from the incessant service delivery protests and the perennial incidents of fatalities of school children in dilapidated school ablution facilities. The poor state of sanitation facilities in peri-urban and informal settlements owes a lot to the legacy of spatial planning pre-1994 that resulted in a huge infrastructure backlog.
The situation has been further exacerbated by corruption and maladministration of resources that has plagued the government since the democratic dispensation. Sadly, the recent economic woes have further diminished government’s capacity to address this problem.
The current municipal guidelines and processes are also not well-suited to handle the situation with municipalities becoming caught up in the technical definition of what constitutes an informal settlement and the implications of transitioning such settlements into formal ones.
Therefore, a large chunk of municipal budget is spent providing ad hoc services such as trucking of potable water and provision of portable chemical toilets to informal settlements. It is easy to bash municipalities but given the state and extent of the situation, I would see the glass as being half-full.
However, the level of sanitation service provided in these informal settlements falls far short of the Constitutional mandate.
The dichotomous nature of sanitation services in South Africa along the economic line is a proxy for the inequality that exists in the country. While the better-offs are serviced with water-borne flushing toilets, the basic sanitation defined for many townships and rural areas is a hole in the ground, either in the form of the pit latrine or its equivalent.
Due to the impromptu nature of informal settlements, permanent infrastructure is usually not provided.
The life cycle operation and maintenance cost of these ad hoc solutions are expensive compared with more permanent ones such as the pit latrine. However, pit latrines have low user acceptance and the high rate of rejection results in public outbursts and service delivery protests.
The right of the citizens to sanitation as stipulated in the Constitution thus rings hollow. While the constitutional right attempts to give equal access to sanitation it does not stipulate equal sanitation quality. Unless equal sanitation quality is defined in the Constitution, can we then say access to sanitation is a human right? This is a question that needs addressing as the state of sanitation in informal settlements has become a political weapon and rallying point for the socialist idealist and radical humanists.
This, however, does not tell the full story. If we agree with the status quo, that access to sanitation services is a human right, as with every right, it must come with some level of responsibility from its beneficiaries. Similar to the right to freedom of speech, which strives to minimise and remove censorship and yet does not warrant the right to slander or promote speech that infringe on other rights.
The dichotomy in sanitation service provision is only mirrored by the dichotomy in willingness to pay or to take care of sanitation infrastructure. The line or scope of responsibility for sanitation in suburban homes is clear and well-defined.
The homeowner is responsible for both capital and operational costs of the toilet facility within the boundary of the home while the municipality takes responsibility for infrastructure outside the boundary or fence. This boundary is sacrosanct and well-respected where the suburban homeowner more often than not, pays for the sanitation effluent that is discharged from the property. In periurban and informal settlements the line or scope of responsibility has been distorted in the pursuit of fulfilling a constitutional mandate.
This has robbed the homeowner of responsibility and the sanitation facility is seen as the property and responsibility of the municipality. As such, these facilities become derelict if not maintained by the municipality. The maintenance of these facilities is oftentimes a drain on the resources of the municipality and the lack of revenue from this service hampers the ability of the municipality to invest in new sanitation infrastructure or in the maintenance of existing ones.
Until the issue of who pays and maintains toilets and sanitation facilities in peri-urban and informal settlement is addressed, the sanitation backlog will continue to grow and the right of access to basic sanitation, as intended, will remain a pipe dream.