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Namibian government takes steps to address dire sanitation conditions exposed in CCIJ investigation

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

December 13, 2023

The Namibian government has begun implementing vital sanitation reform after a CCIJ investigation laid bare a nation in crisis. 

In a statement made directly to the CCIJ on November 19, the Deputy Executive Director for Water Affairs at the Ministry for Agriculture, Water and Land Reform (MAWLR), Dr. Elijah Ngurare, outlined that new toilet building schemes were taking place across seven regions of the country as part of the Namibia Water Sector Support Program (NWSSP) – one of the nation’s biggest ever infrastructure projects. 

For the first time, these toilet building schemes are now being accompanied by crucial community outreach to train communities on how to both use and maintain the facilities, as well as other good hygiene practices that were recommended in the CCIJ’s report.

The report made headlines across the country when it was published in May as it revealed the extent of the Namibian government’s failure to provide adequate access to safe toilets and hygiene facilities – a basic human right – to over half the population. For many Namibians, open defecation is the only option they’ve ever known, but the CCIJ investigation exposed 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, these conditions can lead to the spread of deadly faecal-oral diseases, such as Hepatitis E, as well as the contamination of key water sources used for drinking and cooking.

A dirt hill in the foreground with a settlement area of metal shacks off in the distance

Defecation area in Havana settlement, Windhoek.

The CCIJ’s expose further revealed that a crisis of this magnitude was avoidable. Namibia’s own 2008 Water Supply and Sanitation Policy and their 2010-2015 National Sanitation and Hygiene Strategy both outlined that training on cleaning, construction, maintenance, and usage, as well as raising awareness of the benefits of sanitation, would be vital when installing toilets in a community. However, the CCIJ found that such practices were never implemented. Despite the government spending tens of millions of dollars on over 20,000 toilets in the past 15 years, open defecation levels dropped by just 2.7% nationwide and sanitation levels in urban areas actually declined – with many residents returning to the bush once their toilets became unclean or damaged.

Consequently, MAWLR’s new toilet building initiative is a much needed change.

While the program remains in its infancy, MAWLR has built toilets in four rural villages since October, and, for the first time, the ministry has accompanied the construction with necessary community training. The statement sent to the CCIJ says that, “upon completion of construction works, household members were given sanitation awareness and user education to ensure that all household members are using the facility and maintain it properly.” Unemployed young people and other community members were also involved in the construction of the toilets, providing them with an opportunity to market their skills to others in need of facilities, according to the statement. The government has said it’s targeting the construction of  a further 82 toilets by the end of the year. 

The map indicates villages where the Namibian government has constructed new sanitation facilities.

Godfried Shishugho, 55, from Kayova village in Kavango East, had a latrine constructed for his family in September, after a lifetime using the bush. “I am very happy with what has been done for us,” he said. “We have never had a toilet ever since I’ve been on this earth. It is the first time we have one. We are a family of 30 people, and even though we would have preferred two made for us, given the number of our family, we are still grateful.” 

Shishugho added that government officials gave his family user training through demonstrating correct maintenance and cleaning practices. “They trained us on how to use it and how to keep it clean after one has made use of it,” he said.

Tobias Matias, 51, a disabled man from Olukonda B, in Oshikoto Region, was also shown how to use and maintain a toilet when one was constructed in his village. “I am very grateful for what they (the ministry) have done for me,” he told the CCIJ. “I have been without a toilet my whole life, but it became more difficult in 2011 when I became disabled. I have one leg. So, sometimes when the one leg I make use of is in pain that day, I would even fall in my own faeces after using the bush…this toilet is a good intervention from the ministry, and I appreciate it.”

In addition, another government agency – Namibia’s Directorate of Water Supply and Sanitation – has started Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) outreach in villages prior to the installation of toilets. CLTS is a collaborative, bottom-up approach successfully used by other governments and NGOs. It is aimed at achieving and sustaining open defecation free status by focusing on “igniting a change in sanitation behaviour through community participation rather than constructing toilets.” Through CLTS, MAWLR noted that “household members have knowledge on the importance of using sanitation facilities as opposed to open defecation and hand washing.”

However, CLTS isn’t always accompanied by the construction of sanitation facilities. Gotlieb Sheyavari Timo is the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) coordinator for Development Workshop Namibia (DW), an NGO dedicated to ensuring residents in Namibia’s informal settlements have access to improved sanitation. His organisation has been using CLTS for years to create open defecation free communities across the country. Sheyavari emphasised that “training/information sharing should go hand-in-hand with the building of toilets in order for sanitation behaviour change and action to happen.”

While MAWLR’s recent initiatives are seen as a step in the right direction, the vast majority of Namibians have yet to see any improvement. Furthermore, other obstacles still remain in providing adequate sanitation. The government continues to divide the responsibility of providing sanitation services between seven ministries, regional councils and local authorities. It has yet to conduct a nationwide awareness raising campaign that was promised over 15 years ago. And it is also set to fall short of its goal of constructing 688 toilets nationwide in 2023. 

The Namibian government is obligated to provide adequate sanitation to its citizens through its commitment to core international human rights treaties, as well as its own constitution. But its most vulnerable communities in rural areas and informal settlements still face a troubling long wait for this basic human right. 

Letisia Mathew, 35, has been living in Goreangab, an informal settlement on the outskirts of the capital Windhoek, for 17 years. She says the government is always promising toilets but, “it is not happening.” Mathew lives with her two nieces that she cares for. “At the moment, we help ourselves behind trees and nearby bushes,” she says, despite numerous assurances from the local municipality that a toilet will soon be built in their neighbourhood.

A settlement camp of small metal shacks spread out on a hill
In the Goreangab settlement camp outside of Windhoek, lack of sanitation infrastructure often defines quality of life. Lacking proper toilets, residents often defecate in the open, atop hills. Ultimately the waste flows back down to the homes below leading to unsafe conditions. Most residents suffer from health ailments directly related to the unsanitary conditions.

Namibia’s sanitation was under the spotlight in November as the nation hosted the 7th AfricaSan conference in Swakopmund. In his presentation, Dr. Ngurare conceded that, “sanitation coverage has remained almost stagnant over the past ten years,” and that previous country targets had been “over-optimistic.” He explained that MAWLR had revised rural sanitation targets down to 50% by 2030, after initially targeting 100%. The changing of the targets from 100% to 50% effectively means that 500,000 Namibians will still be waiting past 2030 for basic sanitation. The number of households with adequate toilet facilities in rural areas currently stands at 13.4%.

After years of inflated and unreachable targets, the recent government initiatives are certainly a step in the right direction. However, the stark reality remains that over half a million Namibians still face a minimum seven year wait for basic sanitation. Dr. Ngurare insists the issue remains a top priority in government, but as the nation heads to the polls next year, that may be hard to believe for those still going without.  

“Maybe it will only happen in the next government administration,” adds Mathew.

CCIJ Editorial and Design Team

Editorial

Melissa Mahtani

Data

Sotiris Sideris

Yuxi Wang

Design and visuals

Nic Bothma

Jillian Dudziak

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