Pit Toilets: Death Traps?

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Shoddily built pit toilets made from cheap metal are often left uncovered.  CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES

Many of us have more than one flushing toilets in our homes.  We have access to proper sanitation facilities.  When we use public washrooms, we can lock the doors of the stalls we use and when we’re done, we have running water and soap to wash our hands.  Sadly, this is not the case for many people.

For Hunaineh who lived in a collective shelter in Arbin, Syria, access to sanitation is still in the distant future. Attiya Hirji of Oxfam Canada shares Hunaineh’s story:

When nature called, we used to listen carefully to make sure there were no close clashes and then run to the nearest empty space to pee. Even now in this crowded shelter where the sewage system is not working properly, we still lack proper latrines. We sometimes have to queue for almost an hour to use the same dirty toilet that tens have used before.”

Oxfam is asking for donations to install water pumps and latrines.  They have organized water conservation and hygiene promotion sessions. Oxfam has also distributed hygiene kits across Syria containing washing powder, soap, shampoo and hygiene pads to help prevent the spread of disease.

Having access to a clean, working toilet can change lives and save them.  In South Africa, two children have drown in a pit latrine. Last year, three year old Omari Monono died in the outside toilet at his aunt’s house in Limpopo province, the same region where five-year-old Michael Komape drowned in a school toilet in 2014.  Omari’s mother, Kwena Monono said that her son “was pulled out of the toilet head-first at about 16:00 on Wednesday”, after having gone missing two hours earlier.  This mother was hurting over the loss of her son.  She was quoted as saying, “I’m hurting. I cannot eat or sleep.” and “Every time I see something my son loved, my heart breaks and I just cry.”

In March of last year, the death of 5-year-old Viwe Jali in a pit toilet at her school was a tragic accident waiting to happen, according to Section 27’s, Mark Heywood.  The little girl is believed to have drowned on Monday in her school toilet in the Eastern Cape.  She lay there overnight and was only found the next day.  Heywood says, “We know there is the danger of children falling into them because they are not protected properly.”  These toilets are a threat hygiene and health.  He went on to say that,  pit latrines in and of themselves are not the problem in rural areas where there is no water for example. It is the lack of safety measures that is the issue.  “It is the safety and the method of construction and the hygiene of the pit toilets.”  

Listen to this radio interview with Mark Heywood as he explains what the real problem behind the pit latrine deaths is and what his plans are to resolve it.

Last year, five year old Lumka Mkhethwa went missing at school in March and it was feared she had been abducted.  Her body was found the next day.   She had drowned after falling into a pit toilet in the grounds of Luna Primary in Bizana, South Africa.  Her tragic death caused an outcry prompting the government to announce that it will get rid of “hole-in-the-ground” toilets at more than 4500 state schools within two years.  “This is an initiative that will save lives and restore dignity to tens of thousands of our nation’s children, as our constitution demands,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said on August 14, 2018.  “It will spare generations of young South Africans the indignity, the discomfort and the danger of using pit latrines and other unsafe facilities in our schools.

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This is the pit latrine where 5 year old Michael Komape died at his primary school in 2014.  Photo by GALLO

Pit latrines, sometimes called long-drop toilets, are a type of toilet that collects feces in a hole in the ground.  They are poorly constructed and are dangerous for children to use.  This is why young children like Omari, Michael and Lumka should have been accompanied by an adult.  Lumka’s father, Vuyani Mkhethwa said: ‘We do not understand how this happened. We were under the impression that children are escorted to the toilet at that age.” 

Omari’s aunt left him to relieve himself outside the toilet as usual while she was busy with her house chores when she noticed she had not seen the toddler for some time.  So, even though Omari wasn’t using the latrine, he should have still been monitored.  Maybe he got too close that time and fell in because as mentioned earlier, these latrines are often left uncovered.  What a heart-wrenching tragedy for his family, especially his mother and his aunt.  It was the aunt who called the police when she searched for the boy but couldn’t find him.

Pit latrines are considered basic sanitation yet, according to Water Aid, an estimated 27% of South Africans don’t even have access to basic sanitation and that is slightly lower than the global average of one third.   The UN defines basic sanitation as:

  • a flush or pour-flush toilet linked to a piped sewer system
  • pit latrines with a slab, septic tank or ventilation
  • a composting toilet.

About one in five South African schools have pit latrine toilets – BBC

According to spokesperson, Zukiswa Pikoli, the death of little Omari reinforces the need to eradicate pit toilets which and to provide communities and schools safe and adequate sanitation.  And this happened after the unfortunate death of five year old Lumka.  President Cyril Ramaphosa said that her death forced the government to act and ensure that decent sanitation is provided at all schools.  Eastern Cape has more than 1500 schools with pit latrines and 61 with no toilets at all.  “Schools should be places where children have fun, get educated, where they are safe.” He also said that schools should be the “heartbeat of wholesome communities”.

This World Toilet Day, Oxfam encourages all of us to take the Pay2Pee Challenge by donating $2 every time we use the toilet.  Together let’s “flush” this problem for good!

Sources:  BBC News; Oxfam Canada; Their World; 702

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