Achieving universal sanitation: Sharing the experience of the SDI affiliate in Blantyre, Malawi

Achieving universal access to sanitation is going to take a lot. In the urban context, high residential densities and extremely low incomes add to the challenge. New approaches will be required, and partnerships between organised communities and their local governments are going to be key.

Diana Mitlin's picture
Insight by 
Diana Mitlin
27 October 2014
An ecosan toilet in Mtandire settlement (Photo: Slum/Shack Dwellers International)

An ecosan toilet in Mtandire settlement (Photo: Slum/Shack Dwellers International)

A joint delegation from Malawi travelled to World Water Week in Stockholm to present at a SHARE meeting organised by IIED with WaterAid and UNICEF. This was a chance to share their work on sanitation in the city of Blantyre.

World Water Week in Stockholm is a leading international event focusing on the planet's water issues and related concerns of international development. The week attracts more than 2,500 participants and 200 collaborating organisations from around 130 countries.

In their presentation, the Malawi delegation set out their experience of working in partnership to improve sanitation in Blantyre. Delegation members included the national leader of the Malawi Federation of the Rural and Urban Poor, Mphatso Njunga, as well as the Director of Health and Social Services in the city of Blantyre, Emmanuel Kanjunjunju, and the Policy and Advocacy Manager for the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE), Mercy Kamwanja.

Documenting living conditions in informal settlements

A critical first step to improving sanitation has been documenting the scale of the problems in the city.

The local authority recognises 21 informal settlements. However, the federation has identified and profiled 41 informal settlements within Blantyre. The settlements have been identified both by federation members and traditional chiefs. The federation has developed close links to traditional chiefs, particularly through their work on water and sanitation.  

Chiefs played an important role in local government in the city, as there had been no local elections for several years. There was a return to local democracy in May 2014 with elections held, and 23 new councillors have now joined seven local MPs in representing Blantyre's residents.

The federation's knowledge about local settlements is valued both by local government and the communities themselves. The city council recognises the very significant contribution that groups within informal settlements are making to the city, and the council has established an Informal Settlement Unit to help address their council responsibilities.

Following federation information gathering, community development strategies (CDSs) have been completed in eight informal settlements. Local residents have been mobilised by settlement profiling and the strategies have been designed to include of the collective priorities of residents. The communities hope that their strategies will direct development assistance.

The federation is a member of Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI). The federation has grown to include more of people and more diverse communities. As a result, members decided that the federation should change its name from the Malawi Homeless People's Federation to the Malawi Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor. This name change is to ensure that all people are comfortable with their participation and do not feel unable to join because they are not "homeless".

Government funding for upgrading informal settlements

The annual budget for Blantyre City Council is approximately $10 million USD. There is no fixed amount for investment in informal settlements. However the council recognises that this is the area of greatest need, as 75 per cent of the population live in informal settlements.

Two years ago, the council began a participatory process whereby they asked organised communities to meet with the chief executive and department directors and discuss council investment priorities.

Federation leader Mphatso Njunga says: "The first year, we went there and they were telling us what has been done. This year it was different. Community leaders were asking council about where they get the money."

The third year of this participatory budget will begin in January 2015 for the financial year that begins in July 2015. This year the 23 newly elected councillors will also be a part of the budget negotiations.

In addition to the funds that the council has to invest, there are also monies available through the Constituency Development Funds (CDF) that are allocated to the seven MPs that represent Blantyre's population. Each MP gets approximately $16,500 to spend on local priorities. These monies are accounted for through the local authority. Previously there has not been any coordination of investments by the local authority but this is now being discussed.

The sanitation challenge

The challenge remains immense. There are an estimated 120,000 households living in the city, of which 90,000 live in areas with no public sewer network, i.e. in informal settlements. The council estimates that somewhere between 35,000 to 75,000 households are in need of toilets, as they either have no provision, or their current provision is inadequate for dense urban neighbourhoods.

One problem that is rarely acknowledged is that about 70,000 households are using ventilated improved pit (VIP) toilets and traditional pit latrines. When pits are full they are not emptied but are closed and another one is dug. However, as shallow wells are a major source of water the potential health risks are considerable.

Council investment capital is critical to achieving scale in the improvement works because significant numbers of residents lack the income needed to pay for sanitation. Mphatso Njunga estimates that 30 per cent of federation members do not have any income to pay for adequate sanitation investments. In this context, assessing strategies that offer universal access is a key challenge.

Federation savings schemes have supported almost 700 eco-sanitation installations with, on average, three families sharing each facility. Each eco-san unit costs about $300. This scale of investment shows what is possible - and also that much more needs to be done.

The Federation has been working across the city to encourage investment in sanitation. Local chiefs have been encouraged to be the first to apply for loans for eco-sanitation toilets with bathrooms. The example of local chiefs has encouraged uptake by other residents.

Other activities have included neighbourhood cleaning. Some of the worst conditions in the city were in Ntopwa but after the mobilization of residents by the Federation this settlement is now a learning centre showing what can be done if people are organized.

New sanitation options

In their efforts to expand options and potentially reduce costs and increase accessibility, the alliance has been exploring new approaches. A new precedent is sanitation with decentralised waste water treatment. In Bangwe, the federation has constructed 52 dwellings in a lower-middle income neighbourhood that will provide rental housing. They have used this project as an opportunity to experiment with decentralised waste water treatment.

The housing development is now complete and people will begin occupying these houses in the next few weeks. Federation members will come to see the technology and consider its affordability. They will also have the chance to think through how it might work in their own informal settlements, whether re-blocking would be required, and whether spare ground would be available for the treatment ponds and where the ponds could be located.

The federation is also about to increase its investment in public toilets. A public toilet installed in the Chemusa area has been working well. This is a public eco-sanitation toilet that is used intensively by market traders and those living in the vicinity. There is a charge of 20 kwacha, but this has not deterred users, even though the council has a free toilet nearby. The federation has been allocated land for toilet construction in two further markets and will begin building later this month.

The challenge of water availability

One of the biggest challenges that efforts to improve sanitation need to address is the lack of water. From August to October pipes run dry, and water is rationed across the city. In some neighbourhoods there is no water for several days, when both shallow wells and water kiosks fail. Even when it is available, water from kiosks is expensive: at 20 kwacha for 20 litres, providing for the minimum requirements of a family of six costs about $9 a month.

The federation has been helping households connect to the piped water network by providing loans for water meters and other costs associated with network expansion. Cost savings are immediate: one member recently reported that her bill had fallen to about two thirds of its previous value. However, the connection charges may be as much as $200 a household.

The federation and its support NGO, CCODE, have also been thinking about the potential of rainwater harvesting to address water shortages.

The presentation by the Blantyre delegation is available on the World Water Week website.

This blog first appeared on the SDI website. It was co-authored by Diana Mitlin ([email protected]), a principal researcher in IIED's Human Settlements Group, and Mercy Kamwanja, CCODE (Malawi)