Proper latrines were once a must-have, to the extent that laws were enforced to ensure every family had one. Today, however, the latrine seems to be causing as many problems as it is solving, Andrew Masinde and Carol Natukunda write
Mzee Zestaffia Musoke is at a crossroads. The 70-year-old once owned a plot of land in one of the city suburbs. At the time, he seemed to have all the space to himself.
The latrine was several meters away from his main house. But as he grew older, he had to sell part of his land, including the place where the latrine was.
“I built a new latrine near my boys’ quarters,” he says. That would not be a problem if it was the only loo nearby. But Musoke’s neighbours also have latrines bordering his house.
Like Musoke, Joseph Kiwenda, a few years ago, bought a plot in Namugongo, Wakiso district. When his neighbour started constructing a house, the first thing he put up was a pit latrine just next to Kiwenda’s wall.
“When I complained to him about it, he told me he had the right to construct anywhere within his land. The smell is too much, I am thinking about selling off my land,” says Kiwenda.
Musoke and Kiwenda are not the only ones in this dilemma. With the population growing, Ugandans are facing a latrine crisis, and conflicts over their location are arising among homesteads.
And with latrines built ever so close to homesteads, this inevitably also raises questions regarding contamination and hygiene.
While environmental health experts say that ideally, a pit latrine should be constructed 30 metres away from the main house, this is not happening.
“People are too many and there is no space, especially, in the urban areas. Someone has a very tiny plot of land, but they want to build a house and a pit latrine there no matter how small the toilet is,” says Joachim Baziga, a self-employed plumber.
“So you have homes with awful smells, because latrines are so near each other,” he adds.
At the same time, experts worry about contamination of the water table. An ideal toilet should be constructed 15 to 20 feet deep, so it does not touch the water table, according to a senior principal environment health officer in the environment and water ministry, David Ibuyat.
“A latrine has to be set up in a convenient location with a good drainage at least 30 metres away from any springs, streams or rivers, six metres from a home and at least two metres above the water table underground,” Ibuyat explains.
Several scientific studies by the National Environmental Management Authority and the Department of Chemistry at Makerere
University, reveal that most springs in the city contain a bacteria called E. Coli. This bug originates from faeces, and its presence is evidence that the water is contaminated.
“The consequence of all this has been the frequent outbreaks of water-borne diseases mainly cholera, diarrhoea and dysentery. Slums have been hit hardest by cholera outbreaks over the years,” Ibuyat notes.
Ibuyat also explains that latrines should be placed downwind of the home or school and not facing homes, just like Musoke’s house is. Ibuyat says this controls the smell. “The doorway of the latrine should face the wind and not the home,” he says.
Besides, the latrines are just not enough for the 33 million Ugandans and the situation is much worse today than it was in the 1960s.
A World Bank study titled: Scaling up sanitation and hygiene in Uganda (2007), shows a trend in latrine coverage with 98% coverage in the 1960s and going down to 45% and 20% in the1970s and 1980s respectively.
A recent World Bank water and sanitation report released in April last year says Uganda needs 650,000 more latrines to ensure that every Ugandan has access to a latrine.
Currently, at least 3.2 million Ugandans have no latrines at all and their place of convenience is the open space, according to the report.
The report indicates that another 13.8 million Ugandans use unsanitary latrines or share.
This poor sanitation is costing the country at least sh389b annually. The money lost in three years can meet the cost of building the latrines the country needs, which stands at sh1.3 trillion.
In the 1950s, when the colonialists started to promote sanitation, the chiefs enforced pit latrine construction and monitored them.
A few years after independence, the Government enacted the Public Health Act 1964. Various sanitation and waste related ordinances or by-laws were also formulated by local governments to facilitate the sanitation.
As the years went by, the population grew, rural urban migration set in and sanitation ceased to be a priority as there were no chiefs to enforce hygiene.
As a result, today’s latrine coverage is worse than what it was at independence.
The 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey also paints the same picture. Only 16% of households in Uganda use improved toilet facilities that are not shared with other households.
The overwhelming majority (two in three households) use non-improved toilet facilities.
The survey notes that the common type of toilet in urban areas is a pit latrine with a slab (34%), while in the rural areas the most common type of toilet is a pit latrine without a slab (62%).
About 10% of the households mainly in the rural areas have no toilet facilities at all.
Ibuyat says faecal-borne diseases kill more people and create more suffering than war or natural disaster.
“A dirty latrine is not only unpleasant to use, especially while bare feet, but smells and attracts flies, bringing more diseases,” he says.
An illustration of how easily water can be contaminated where there is poor management of human waste
Types of latrines
Traditional pit latrines are well known in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They are simple pits covered with logs and are not usually roofed, sometimes they have no walls and they cost zero or no specialist skills.
San Plat latrines are like the traditional latrine, but with an improved latrine slab, slightly elevated for ease of use in the dark and they are located close to the house with fitted lid to prevent smell and flies.
Conventional improved pit latrines are also similar to the traditional latrine, but built with more solid materials such as bricks, with walls and a roof.
VIP latrines are the normal pit latrines, but with a screened vent pipe fitted allowing wind to ideally blow over the vent pipe.
The ventilated improved pit latrine is highly recommended by public health officials and offers improved sanitation by eliminating flies and smell through air circulation.
The addition of a chimney draws air currents into the structure and squat hole and lets odours rise through the chimney and disperse.
VIPs are good because flies attracted to the pit through the squat hole are trapped while trying to escape by heading towards the strongest light source, which comes from the chimney.
The flies exit is blocked by a wire mesh so the flies eventually die and fall back into the pit; the spiral structure prevents too much light from entering the toilet while allowing a free flow of air.
Pour-flush latrines are water seal fitted to drop hole, meaning no smell and no flies since the water is poured into the water seal to flush the toilet.
Compost latrines are built with removable pits, to use the contents for fertiliser.
Excavating a pit latrine
For a family latrine, the rectangle should be 2 by 5 feet.
For a school or community latrine, Ibuyat says the diameter should be 1.8 metres across. If the ground is quite rocky and very stable during rains, then it may not need a brick lining.
He also says one should not make the hole too wide, and that the hole should be 10 feet deep and the wall solid so that it does not fall in.
Ibuyat says pit latrines can be built and repaired with locally available materials, does not require a constant source of water, can be used immediately after construction and are at low capital costs depending on materials used.
Pit latrines are disadvantageous as they attract flies and odours all the time; sludge requires secondary treatment and/or appropriate discharge.
Pits are susceptible to failure/overflowing during floods, and because they emptied, they need to be filled up consistently.
In an earlier interview with New Vision, Dr. Amin Tamale, a Makerere University lecturer of city and urban planning, noted that the Physical Planning Act 2010 declares the whole country a planning area and does not recognise pit latrines in the physical planning of Kampala.
“According to the physical planning laws, people in Kampala are not supposed to use pit latrines,” he said.
He, however, discourages septic tanks because they discharge faecal material into soak pits, from where the material goes into the soil and contaminates underground water. Worse still, he adds, not all people can afford septic tanks and pit latrines.
Paddy Twesigye, the National Water and Sewerage Corporation senior projects manager, also says the level and type of toilet system used. depends on the social and economic ability of the people and nature of planning.
“The pattern of human settlement determines the nature of sanitation facilities. “With proper planning, it is easier and cost-effective to determine a uniform and manageable toilet system for a given area.
However, this is not possible for much of Kampala because of mixed settlements, for low-income and high-income earners,” Twesigye says.
How to beat the smell
Soapy water reacts with urine to produce an offensive smell that is worse than the real smell of faeces.
Do not let any soapy water flow into a pit latrine.
Use clean water and a toilet disinfectant to clean the latrine regularly.
When the level of the faecal matter rises to one metre below the surface, you have to empty the pit. Do not empty the latrine when it still has fresh faeces. Use an alternative latrine as you wait for the original one to decompose before you can empty it.
If space is not a problem, such as in rural areas, you can simply abandon the filled-up latrine and dig another one.
After several years the decomposed sludge will not be able to cause health problems, and can even be used as a fertiliser.
Avoid use of chemicals and dry battery cells as they could lead to collapse of the pit latrine.
Pit latrines are here to stay – expert
By Gerald Tenywa
Despite posing various problems, the pit latrine will remain the dominant and most cost-effective facility for disposal of human excreta as long as Uganda remains a Third World country, says David Mukama, sanitation coordinator at the ministry of water and environment.
Mukama argues that the alternatives are costly and, therefore, not affordable to the masses in the short run.
He adds that flush toilets are not environmentally friendly because they use plenty of water and therefore generate plenty of sewerage, which end up polluting the gazetted disposal areas such as swamps and water bodies.
The problems arising from pit latrines, according to Mukama, are a result of poor planning, improper construction, misuse and poor maintenance. “At the moment, the priority is to build pit-latrines to avoid open defecation,” he says.
He explains that the excreta in pit latrines could be turned into biogas for cooking or lighting and manure for agriculture or home gardening. This would even help with environmental conservation.
He says the problem, is that pit-latrines are not properly maintained and many users are indisciplined.
“For instance, they throw waste such as bottles, plastics, dry cells and sanitary towels into the pit-latrines,” he notes.
Mukama advises that people should stop viewing the latrine as the dirty and unwanted part of their homes. “They should accept it as part of their homes so that they can keep it clean.”