Healing the Problem of Flying Toilets: Solutions For Tackling Drought In Africa

24/06/2013 16:45 | Updated 24 August 2013

Like world hunger, which I covered briefly in the run-up to last week's G8 summit, drought is another issue which affects countless lives and livelihoods. However, global awareness of the issue is low, despite the shocking statistics: according to Practical Action, who have produced an infographic on the effects of drought in Africa, 50,000 people across the East African countries of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia were killed in 2011 by drought and the famine which followed. In 2013, more than 40million people are living in drought conditions in East Africa. The researchers add:

Climate change is disrupting the world's rainfall patterns, meaning some parts of the developing world are suffering from a drastic drop leading to a fall in water levels in many reservoirs and rivers. In sub-Saharan Africa, 90% of agriculture is rain-fed, making it even more vulnerable to changing weather patterns.

Practical Action are working on projects in Turkana, in the north-western tip of Kenya, an area they identify as being one of the hardest hit by drought. In Turkana, child mortality is one in three, the average life expectancy is only 42 years and 50% of the population suffer illness due to water-borne diseases from dirty water.

The poorest people are affected by these issues the most - in particular, women and children. Lack of water leads to the failure of crops which would be eaten or sold at market; the absence or extreme diminution of these can lead to starvation and poverty. That, coupled with the loss of livestock, who have nothing to drink or eat, leads to further loss of income, which forces families into even harsher poverty. When rain does fall, the effort to collect the water in itself is riven with risks due to the uncleanness of rainwater and the physical exertion required to get it: women (with their children) must walk an average of three miles in extreme heat to access the water, which may be contaminated by animal dung and can only be collected by climbing into dry river bed pits which could collapse in on them.

However, there are solutions to the effects of drought. These focus on accessing clean water, providing a reliable supply of water for personal use, purifying unclean water, storing and distributing water across land for agricultural purposes and improving hygiene and sanitation practices to reduce disease. Solar-powered water pumps can draw water up from underground for up to 12 hours a day, to be stored in tanks connected to pumps and taps covering a local village area.

When it comes to hygiene I have to thank Practical Action for teaching me the phrase 'flying toilet' - which means shitting into a plastic bag. This happens in the poorest of poor slum areas where water is scarce, plumbing networks have not been established and waste containment and disposal are not available. So 'flying toilets' are used and discarded, creating serious and sometimes fatal health risks. More common in less under-resourced areas are communal pit latrines - anyone who has seen the early scenes of Slumdog Millionaire will know the type - which are usually a hole over the ground with boards to squat on. Quick tip for Western tourists wary of rural squat toilets: put your weight on one knee slightly, leaning with your elbow, like Robin Hood on a promontory, looking out for enemies.

The issue of unclean toilets has a knock-on effect on education: PA mention Kitale in Kenya, where schools are threatened with closure due to lack of sanitary (and therefore safe) toilet facilities for children to use; the charity has worked on projects providing better facilities there, enabling 3,000 children to stay in education.

A good solution is the establishment of bio-latrines, a dry technology engineering solution which does not require water and so negated the possibility of leaked waste polluting the groundwater. The system is also designed to prevent the overflow of waste which can itself be processed to use as fertiliser. As the waste biodegrades, the system also captures the methane gas which is produced and can be used for heat, lighting and cooking.

This, combined with the implementation of basic education around sanitation and hygiene, have immeasurable positive effects.

Investment and infrastructure are needed not just for these measures but for the other proposed treatments for tackling the effects of drought, including the utilisation of sand dams, the development of irrigation techniques and, for those populaces in coastal areas, the distillation of (undrinkable in its natural state) salt water to make it safe. Rainwater can also be captured and stored in above- and below-ground catchment tanks to enable people to have water even in the depths of a dry season.

Through all of these measures, we can begin tackling the effects of drought and the consequences of global natural changes which are presenting the greatest challenges to those who are already the worst off.