A Multi-Faceted Issue: Sanitation in South Africa

A Multi-Faceted Issue: Sanitation in South Africa

3 July 2024: Sanitation in South Africa is a complex challenge intertwined with social, economic, and environmental factors, as highlighted by the South African Institution of Civil Engineering’s (SAICE) Water Engineering Division. Vice-chairperson of SAICE’s Water Engineering Division (WED), Zweli Mahlangu PrTechEng, and its former chair and current Treasurer, Abri Vermeulen PrEng, emphasise that sanitation transcends engineering and requires a holistic approach that encompasses critical social issues.

Globally, sanitation remains a significant crisis, with three billion people lacking access to safe facilities. In South Africa, access has improved from 50% in 1994 to 84% today. Yet, the rapid population growth, from 36 million in 1994 to 62 million in 2021, continues to challenge the provision of adequate sanitation.

In explaining the need for a holistic lens to solve many of the sanitation challenges facing the country, Vermeulen asks a simple question, as an example, “We speak about access to sanitation infrastructure and services, but the question the arises, do we have the water to flush everything down?”

South Africa faces significant water scarcity, with less water per capita than its much drier neighbours, Namibia and Botswana. Climate change is expected to further reduce water availability. This scarcity is evident in an average annual rainfall of 450 mm, compared to the global average of 750 mm; great variability in rainfall, resulting in frequent droughts and floods; and a skewed distribution of precipitation, with a relatively wet southern and eastern coastal strip becoming progressively drier to the northwest, not aligning well with population centres and major economic hubs. However, in regions with sufficient water supply, managing sludge, sewage, and wastewater is critical. Yet, many sewer systems face blockages, breakages, pump failures, and lack of affordable emptying services.

A critical issue is the condition of pit toilets in schools, which often pose significant health risks to students and teaching staff. The SAICE WED stresses the urgency of addressing this issue, noting that ensuring safe and clean sanitation in schools is critical for the health and safety of our children and the teachers themselves. Despite some successful projects, many have been compromised by full pits and improper waste disposal, including building rubble and vehicle parts. The tragic deaths of children in poorly constructed pit toilets have brought this issue to national attention, urging immediate action to replace them with safer options.

Additionally, some sanitation programmes have been hampered by the appointment of inexperienced contractors, leading to compromised quality and project abandonment. Mahlangu notes, “Contractors often compromise on quality, leading to poorly constructed toilets that frequently fail.” This issue exacerbates the sanitation crisis, especially in rural and underfunded schools.

Various technologies, from ventilated improved pit (VIP) toilets to decentralised wastewater systems, offer potential solutions to some of the country’s sanitation challenges. However, Mahlangu stresses the need to tailor these technologies to each community’s unique needs, particularly in informal settlements. “Each community is different,” he says. “We need solutions that address their specific challenges and resources.”

As an example, Vermeulen and Mahlangu point out that gravity-driven sewerage systems require sufficient installation density to prevent blockages. Dispersed rural homesteads often lack this density, making extensive pumping systems unfeasible. Hence, there is also a need for stand-alone systems that don’t rely heavily on water. Historically, the government’s reliance on VIP toilets has been effective, but the surge in population and urbanisation calls for sustainable alternatives.

While significant progress has been made in South Africa’s sanitation sector, much work remains. The challenge is not only technical but also social, requiring ongoing engagement and education.

Raising public awareness and educating communities on proper sanitation practices is essential. “Community involvement and education are essential,” Vermeulen says, highlighting the importance of understanding sanitation and system maintenance. Mahlangu agrees, noting, “By empowering communities with knowledge, we can foster long-term change and improve public health.”

Vermeulen aptly concludes: “People need to understand that this is an ongoing challenge everywhere in the world. Addressing it effectively demands a concerted effort from all stakeholders in this country.”




The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) is a learned society and voluntary organisation that acts as a catalyst for innovation and good practice in the development of the civil engineering profession. SAICE has a membership base in excess of 15 000 civil engineering professionals, and is involved in the development of policies, standards, structures and systems that impact infrastructure at national and international levels.


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