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Namibian government vows to scale up sanitation efforts after CCIJ investigation reveals a country in crisis

By Freddie Clayton and Sonja Smith
Photography by Margaret Courtney-Clarke

May 10, 2023

The Namibian government has vowed to take action following a CCIJ investigation into the nation’s dire sanitation crisis.

The CCIJ’s three-part story, published last week, made front page news across the country as it exposed the government’s failure to provide adequate access to safe toilets and hygiene facilities – a basic human right – to more than half the population.

With open defecation often the only option for many Namibians, the CCIJ investigation revealed the shocking conditions citizens face, risking robbery, sexual assault and even wildlife attacks as they are forced to seek the privacy of the bush. In addition to safety and dignity concerns, the report showed how these conditions also put many citizens – especially children – at risk of deadly fecal-oral diseases, as a result of human feces seeping into the ground, contaminating crops alongside key water sources used for drinking and cooking.

Namibia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform (MAWLR) responded to the CCIJ’s report, admitting that the country is “not doing well.”

The Democratic Resettlement Community outside of Swakopmund, Namibia, is home to tens of thousands of people – most of whom lack access to basic sanitation and hygiene facilities. These poor sanitary conditions exist in informal settlements throughout the country, forcing many Namibians to opt for open defecation in the bush.
Democratic Resettlement Community outside of Swakopmund, Namibia
The Democratic Resettlement Community outside of Swakopmund, Namibia, is home to tens of thousands of people – most of whom lack access to basic sanitation and hygiene facilities. These poor sanitary conditions exist in informal settlements throughout the country, forcing many Namibians to opt for open defecation in the bush.

Dr. Elijah Ngurare, MAWLR’s Deputy Executive Director for Water Affairs, contacted  CCIJ reporter Sonja Smith directly after the investigation was published. He admitted that the report had “laid bare” the nation’s sanitation crisis, and said his ministry would invite reporters from the CCIJ to the government’s next sanitation intervention project – although he did not provide a date for this opportunity.  

However, as the CCIJ investigation made clear, MAWLR does not have full ownership of implementing sanitation projects in the country. Seven ministries, alongside regional councils and local authorities, juggle this responsibility, complicating attempts to implement a coherent national strategy. This division of duties and funding also makes it difficult to monitor and track investment and expenditure on sanitation. UNICEF Namibia told the CCIJ that this contributed to poor coordination of the sanitation sector, something the government itself admitted in its 5th National Development Plan.

MAWLR provided a statement to the CCIJ, outlining government plans to improve sanitation across the country. The statement reaffirmed Namibia’s commitment to end open defecation and ensure sanitation for all by 2030, in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal Six (SDG6), while re-stating the potential impacts of the multi-billion-dollar Namibia Water Sector Support Program (NWSSP) aimed at improving sanitation for over 1 million Namibians.

MAWLR’s statement to the CCIJ also outlined several goals it plans to achieve this year. These include plans for nationwide behavioral change and communication campaigns, the construction of 688 sanitation facilities and initiatives to empower communities to design, build, operate and maintain sustainable latrines.

But advocates who have seen these plans remain skeptical that the government will deliver action on the ground.

A homemade toilet in the Ndama informal settlement on the outskirts of Rundu, Namibia, presents a typical solution for citizens left without basic infrastructure or safe options for sanitation. The sanitation crisis affects every region of the country, but hits especially hard in the rural regions.
An outdoor homemade toilet surrounded by black and white tarp
A homemade toilet in the Ndama informal settlement on the outskirts of Rundu, Namibia, presents a typical solution for citizens left without basic infrastructure or safe options for sanitation. The sanitation crisis affects every region of the country, but hits especially hard in the rural regions.

Gotlieb Sheyavari Timo is the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) coordinator for Development Workshop Namibia, an NGO dedicated to ensuring residents in Namibia’s informal settlements have access to improved sanitation. While he welcomed MAWLR’s response and its targets for sanitation, he made clear that many communities had already “lost faith” in government promises, and that stakeholder coordination and implementation remained ineffective. 

“It’s just promises and promises, but we still don’t know if [the plan] is going to happen,” he said. “Let’s really hope that there is active action and implementation, because [strategies] can be well planned and written, but on the ground nothing much is happening… the sector is not coordinated.”

"The most pressing challenge is in areas where authorities or politicians offer to provide flush facilities as a standard basic service but where there are insufficient water resources available to satisfy flushing water needs or where sewage treatment facilities are overloaded."

– An early draft of Namibia’s 2022-2027 Sanitation and Hygiene Strategy, seen by CCIJ.

Timo’s concerns seem well-founded. At a keynote address in Swakopmund this week, Calle Schlettwein, the Minister for Agriculture, Water and Land Reform, acknowledged that the government must address “glaring challenges” in the sanitation sector. However, he also added that “every Namibian should have a quality flushing toilet within their household,” despite the fact his own ministry discourages presenting flush toilets as the gold standard, promoting the use and value of both wet and dry sanitation, depending on the needs of each community.

Schlettwein declined to comment on the discrepancy between his promises and his ministry’s strategic guidance, but his remarks help explain why the government still has so much work to do if it wants to improve the dire sanitation situation for so many Namibians.

CCIJ Editorial and Design Team

Editorial

Melissa Mahtani

Yaffa Fredrick

Data

Sotiris Sideris

Yuxi Wang

Design and visuals

Jillian Dudziak

Scott Lewis

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