Zimbabwe : Why Sanitation Is the Forgotten Sister

Busani Bafana interviews NOMA NESENI, WSSCC water, sanitation and health coordinator.

Lack of water, a large homeless urban population, and mushrooming informal settlements mean sanitation in Zimbabwe's cities is poor.

As part of the International Year of Sanitation in 2008, Zimbabwe developed a national strategy for sanitation, launched in February 2008. Just five months later, a cholera outbreak that was to claim over 4,000 lives began.

One of the strategy's key proposals was to call for expanded resources for sanitation including public-private partnerships to expand access to proper toilets across the country.

The task force included representation from key ministries such as health, water development, and finance, as well as civic organisations like Plan International, World Vision and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), for which Noma Neseni is the water, sanitation and health coordinator in Zimbabwe.

Neseni told IPS why she viewed the task force's work as less than a disaster. Excerpts of the interview follow.

IPS: With Zimbabwe's health delivery services in paralysis, what has your council done to improve sanitation in the country?

Noma Neseni: A national sanitation taskforce team developed a strategy that looked at priority areas. These included an increase in sanitation coverage using demand-led approaches, capacity development at all levels and research into low-cost appropriate technologies.

The strategy also agreed on the opening up of technologies instead of just using the expensive type of VIP [Ventilated Improved Pit] latrine. It was recognised that so long as the latrines took into account the specific scientific aspects of the VIP, the superstructure could be made cheaper.

This strategy was later presented to larger stakeholders who endorsed it. We also had a national sanitation seminar that was attended by different permanent secretaries who endorsed a communiqué that called on private public partnership scaling up of sanitation coverage and more resources for sanitation.

IPS: More often than not, when governments invest in water development, sanitation is its forgotten sister, why so?

NN: Water often gets visibility because without water there is no life. Thus in terms of demand, communities often demand for water over sanitation.

Water is also relatively easy to develop or provide whereas sanitation - especially for large communities - is complicated to implement and manage.

Furthermore, sanitation does not yield the same profits as water so utilities, private sector do not want to invest in sanitation.

It is also easy to show quick returns with water as compared to sanitation. At household level, people have alternatives they can use the bush but if there is no water there is no other alternative.

Even at national level, government has been putting more resources for water as compared to sanitation. Sometimes there is also lack of awareness and understanding on the value of sanitation for the different sectors such as education, environment, tourism, economic development.

IPS: Why is sanitation an important issue today more than ever before?

NN: Access to sanitation is an indicator for human development. It is important for girls' education, for women's safety and dignity, for improved health, for control of vectors and diseases and for ecosystem balance.

And yet there are so many people that still do not have access, in Zimbabwe we are backsliding from around 60 percent coverage to as low as 25 percent.

In urban areas where as once we had almost 100 percent coverage, access is now limited due to lack of water, urban population without houses, informal settlements.

In other words sanitation is important for control of diseases, for sustaining our environment and for achieving the many development goals such as maternal health, education, control of malaria.

IPS: Would you say women than men are more affected by the lack of toilets?

NN: Women and girls are more affected by lack of sanitation as they face defecating in the open which means loss of dignity. Women face sexual abuse and even rape as they walk alone at night using a predictable route to a predictable defecation site and there is the issue of embarrassment in the disposal of sanitary pads.

Men can easily urinate in the open and women often do not have that privilege especially when newly married as a daughter in law. Women also have to look after the sick i.e. [those] infected with HIV or suffering from diarrhoea: without latrines this task is even more difficult.

IPS: In your opinion would you say there is adequate attention to sanitation issues in this country if not, why not?

NN: There has been inadequate attention to sanitation particularly from the perspective of resource allocation. Sanitation is largely seen as a donor activity and even among NGOs; more money is allocated to water.

In recent years there have been challenges such as access to inputs like cement. There are also challenges with management of systems, Institutional problems moving the management in urban areas between ZINWA and local authorities.

Firstly, we need to just finalise the water and sanitation policy in Zimbabwe and then we need to rationalise these different policies that impact on sanitation e.g., water act, environmental bill, education act, urban councils act, rural councils act. The harmonization should lead to clear institutional roles and responsibilities.

A regulatory framework is also necessary as we see that the polluter pays principles are affected. At the moment the polluter fee is so cheap institutions would rather pollute and pay. We also need incentives so that policies are implemented without having to resort to punitive measures.