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Author: Ian Pearson ~ WATSUP Development

( Article Type: Explanation )

Sanitation encompasses several different issues that address the need to safely dispose of the waste products from human activities without irreversible harm to the natural environment. The most well-known aspect of sanitation is the containment, removal and treatment of human faeces and urine. However, equally important aspects include the disposal of wastewater, refuse and industrial wastes. In South Africa many millions of households still lack adequate, safe sanitation facilities.

The government addresses sanitation in various plans and strategies and, in August 2014, committed to developing a Water and Sanitation 10 year Plan (2015-2025).

The responsible authorities are local government institutions – i.e. municipalities. Many of these local authorities are faced with huge backlogs with limited capacity to deliver, or to effectively operate and maintain the installed sanitation systems. Even the new technology dry sanitation systems require ongoing maintenance to prevent contamination of the environment.

Technology choice

The choice of sanitation system is dependent on a number of factors, only one of which is its potential to contaminate the environment. There may be political pressures to install waterborne sanitation systems in all dense settlements, despite minimal resources to properly operate and maintain such waterborne sewerage reticulation systems and sewage treatment works.

In addition, waterborne sanitation uses large amounts of water just to transport the wastes to the sewage treatment works. With scarce water resources in many parts of the country, this may be a wasteful use of water when perfectly suitable alternatives are available.


Concern for protection of groundwater

One of the concerns of using on-site pit toilets is the potential to contaminate groundwater. The Department of Water and Sanitation has developed a procedure for assessing the risk of contamination from various sanitation systems, but particularly for on-site pit toilets. It is a requirement that the risk-assessment procedures as set out in the Groundwater Protocol be implemented during the feasibility stage of all sanitation development projects.

The procedures assess the risk based on the potential contaminant load seeping to the groundwater, the vulnerability of the aquifer, and the strategic value of the groundwater resource. The protocol has helped to identify the true risk of contamination and avoid general statements condemning all onsite sanitation systems. It also assesses potential contamination of the groundwater from other sources such as leaking sewers, cattle dip tanks, small workshops and graveyards.

The future

As municipalities address their sanitation backlogs over the next five years, there will be a need to meet multiple objectives, including improvement of the human environment, protection of the natural environment, the creation of economic opportunities, health and hygiene awareness, the choice of technology that is both sustainable and acceptable to residents, and the creation of an appropriate tariff structure to ensure effective operation and maintenance. New innovations in ecological sanitation technologies present many advantages in terms of these objectives, and it is therefore hoped that municipalities will have the political courage and practical long-term vision to consider such options seriously when planning for the delivery of sanitation services.