In South Africa, many communities insist on having flush technology instead of any other type of sanitation like VIP latrines. Flushing toilets are perceived to be the gold standard when it comes to sanitation.

Many black communities have been pre-exposed to humiliating sanitation facilities pre-1994. Pit toilets which consist of a hole dug in the ground and a seat made out of wood were the norm if they had facilities at all. Many people have lost their lives by either falling through these holes or by the diseases caught through the unhygienic circumstances of these pit toilets. It is only logical that after 1994 people yearn for sanitation that is a dignified and healthier option, with standards above those of pit toilets.

Since the last century, the centralised approach of the conventional wastewater management strategy applied. It is typified by a network of sewers linked to communities and which transport large volumes of wastewater to a collection, treatment and disposal point. Historically, the roots of this approach can be traced back to the outbreak of waterborne diseases, especially Cholera, on the European continent. 

While this strategy of flush toilets lead to significant reduction of the outbreak of waterborne diseases, it is wasteful as considerable amounts of limited and potentially potable water is contaminated with human excreta and other pollutants for the sole purpose of transporting pollutants from one catchment to the next. Conventional systems continue to put pressure on scarce water resources, require high energy inputs and continuously pose a threat to the environment as the recent Vaal river pollution saga attests to that. 

The challenge for developing countries is that they need to match the pace of increasing urbanisation and population growth under increasing water scarcity, and constrained financial and technical resources. Urbanisation is occurring at a rapid rate in developing countries and the dilemma that they are faced with is whether they will ever reach universal sanitation coverage via conventional systems, while also managing increasing water, energy and pollution demands.

On-site or dry sanitation systems are not popular among users even though they remain the most prevalent technology choice in the developing world due to their waterless nature.

These systems treat excrement at source; they also eliminate the need for sewers or in the case of on-site sanitation technologies, having to find ways to manage faecal sludge. Water is not wasted – the technologies significantly reduce requirements for water or recycle it. Further, human excrement can be transformed into by-products of potential economic value allowing for linkages to new business and service delivery models that have the potential to reduce the financial burden to municipalities.

There are many variants of dry sanitation technologies that are available, tested and included in the United Nations definition of improved adequate sanitation system. According to the Boston Consulting Group 2013 report an estimated 2.7 billion people over the world use on-site sanitation systems. According to StatSA 30% of the entire South African population rely on VIP toilets and their derivatives.

Unfortunately the sustainability of sanitation services are related to finance, people, institutions and technologies. Numerous case studies have shown that the failure of sanitation infrastructure investment due to poor consultation, understanding of needs, poor management and operation and maintenance, and lack of technological alternatives. New innovation and buy-in from communities with respect to a more responsible use of our water and energy, while achieving the main aim of sanitation could work out for the greater good.

With dry sanitation innovations there could be opportunities to grow businesses that manufacture toilets and their parts, and have the operation and maintenance component included as part of sanitation management model. This will greatly assist struggling municipalities by excluding rendering of sanitation services. Dry sanitation will also save in terms of excluding the building of infrastructure for bulk sewer plants. Dry sanitation can be a potential game changer in South Africa; all that remains is for communities to be sold on the prospect.

Larry Crisp is a Communications Officer for the Department of Water and Sanitation, Free State Region