Poor sanitation poses major health risks in African nations: Report

Poor sanitation continues to pose major health, environmental and socio-economic risks in many African countries, a new research by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said on Thursday.

The paper highlights ways to improve management, generate industry from human waste, and improve sanitation for cities and households with poor faecal sludge management.

The report’s authors stress the need to invest in sanitation systems and mechanisms to improve faecal sludge management, as well as direct investments – especially to poor households – in order to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Water and sanitation for all by 2030.

The research paper ‘Faecal sludge management in Africa: Socio-economic aspects, human and environmental health implications’ was released on World Toilet Day, which celebrates toilets and raises awareness of 4.2 billion people without access to safely managed sanitation.

It explores current trends in faecal sludge management and how they are impacting human and environmental health in the region, and provides guidance on enhancing waste water management and sanitation services delivery across the continent.

The analysis finds that sustainably managing faecal sludge is hindered by a number of factors, including population growth and urbanisation; over-reliance on financial aid for construction of treatment plants; low revenue generation from users of treatment facilities; poor operation and maintenance; and inefficient institutional arrangements for faecal sludge management.

The authors call for better coordination of the roles and responsibilities of diverse actors involved in the processes.

Poor faecal sludge management is a major contributor to the 115 deaths every hour from excreta-related diseases in Africa, while improved sanitation has been shown to decrease diarrhoeal disease by 25 per cent.

It also contributes to huge economic losses: On the continent, poor sanitation leads to losses of approximately one to 2.5 per cent of a country’s GDP.

As population growth skyrockets — the continent’s urban population is projected to triple by mid-century — so too does the volume of faecal sludge and waste water. Across West African cities, one person produces between 20-150 litres of waste water per day.

Considering an average daily generation of one litre of faecal sludge per person, a city of one million inhabitants will need to collect 1,000 m3 sludge every day.

“The scale and threat of poor faecal sludge management can be turned on its head if we look at the government and business opportunities that can galvanise real change in health and livelihoods in marginalised communities in countries struggling with poor sanitation,” said Habib El-Habr, Coordinator of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (GPA) at UNEP.

“COVID-19 shines a harsh light on the state of proper sanitation in many African countries, for whom improved sanitation should be a key part of green recovery and efforts to prevent excreta-related diseases.”

The report recommends technical innovations for improving the capture, emptying and treatment of sludge, highlighting good practices, including a programme in Uganda, through which the Kampala City Council Authority worked with the private sector to improve faecal sludge management in the city.

The programme included a sanitation call centre to strengthen the link between customers, the City Council and private operators, and a GPS tracking system to improve service efficiency and avoid illegal dumping by private operators.

Treatment plans can generate some revenue for countries and especially for poor communities, converting faecal sludge to compost or biochar for use as fertiliser, or converting to briquettes as fuel for industry.

In 2017, Burkina Faso commissioned the first faecal sludge biogas plant in the country, generating electricity to feed the national grid.

Olufunke Cofie, Principal Researcher and Country Representative for IWMI in West Africa, said: “We are reaching a crucial point in managing faecal sludge on the African continent: There are feasible and affordable opportunities to further invest in inclusive faecal sludge management, and from faeces capture to treatment. The report explores how transforming poop to useful products could help ease the crisis, as we are demonstrating in Ghana.”