December 5, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The December 3-6, 2012, World
Toilet Summit offers an opportunity to contemplate how we curate our crap. Increasingly
the calculus seems to be cash, generating contradictions ranging from local to
global scales, across race, gender, generation and geography. Nowhere are they
more evident than in the host city, my hometown of Durban. We’ve suffered an 18-year era of neoliberal-nationalist malgovernance
including toilet apartheid, in the wake of more than 150 years of colonialism and straight
In central Durban, the mafia of the global
water and sanitation sector – its corporate, NGO and state-bureaucratic elite –
have gathered at the International Convention Centre, just a few blocks west of
the Indian Ocean, into which far too much of our excrement already flows.
They’re at the same scene of the crime as, exactly a year ago, negotiators
dithered at the United Nations COP17 “Conference of Polluters” summit.
Recall that the COP17 rebuffed
anyone who fancifully hoped global elites might address the planet’s main 21st
century crisis. The 1%ers inside ignored outsider demands for climate justice:
make airtight commitments to 50 percent emissions cuts by 2020; drop the
“privatisation of the air” strategy known as carbon trading and offsets; and
cough up “climate debt” payments from rich to poor countries.
Instead, that conference ended with a “Durban
Platform” that re-emphasised capitalist strategies, pleasing Washington especially.
The COP17 deal eroded differences in responsibility between global North and
South, and moreover, as lead Bank of
America Merrill Lynch carbon dealer Abyd Karmali told the Financial Times, the Durban Platform was “like
a Viagra shot for the flailing carbon markets”. True, a tiny carbon price
erection followed, but the effect soon wore off; the European Union Emissions
Trading Scheme has been flaccid throughout 2012.
dog’s-breakfast Durban Platform confirms, then, was global-elite backslapping generosity
to each other, simultaneous with rank incompetence and utter disregard for the
poor and environment, all of which are again on display this week at the COP18
in Doha, Qatar. Precedents matter, for lowering standards.
Toilet Organisation’s battlecry, “Scaling up – dignity for all!”, appears
as a creative talk-left but
turn-the-tap-right (i.e. off) strategy. The water mafia has long struggled to
gain legitimacy for neoliberal cost-cutting strategies, and now does so by
invoking dignity (and they also have tried colonising the “water rights”
discourse) – but naturally not genuine equal access and consumer affordability,
neither of which are possible under neoliberalism.
Another version of this is micro-scale privatisation,
where NGOs and community organisations are encouraged to build local toilets
and charge poor people for their use, to cover construction, cleaning,
maintenance, the water bill and a tiny salary.
Last month in Nairobi’s Kibera and Huruma
slums, I spent a day dodging the “flying toilets” (plastic bags filled with
faeces), thankfully guided in walkabouts by two admirable popular organisations
whose young people – often drawn from ex-gang members – construct these toilets
after fighting the small-scale local water capitalists who physically sabotage state
suppliers. These systems of desperation-commodification, priced at US$0.10 per
use (including one piece of loo paper), are vast improvements on the
flying-toilet status quo.
This travesty is the result of a more general
neoliberal dogma that hit slums like Nairobi’s over the past quarter century: cutbacks
in state-subsidised water. The strong residue – both in World Bank techie talk
and in populist-neoliberal micro-privatisation mode – is just as evident at the
Durban Toilet Summit as it was at the World Water
Forum in Marseilles nine months ago. That event reconfirmed
the water-empire expansion of Paris mega-privatisers like Veolia and Suez, along
with the likes of liquid-barons Coke and Nestle, all backed by the multilateral
Although for a dozen years, fierce anti-privatisation
struggles have been waged in Cochabamba, Johannesburg,
Accra, Argentina, Atlanta, Jakarta, Manila and many other urban water battlegrounds,
it seems that recent US and European municipal fiscal crises offer a new
opportunity for the water profiteers.
At the Durban summit, even more clever
neoliberal stunts are being rehearsed. “Community-Led Total Sanitation” (CLTS),
popularised by NGOer Kamal
Kar and academic Robert Chambers in Bangladesh, passes
yet more responsibilities for public hygiene downwards to poor people. The goal
is to wean the lumpens off reliance upon state subsidies through social shaming.
Bongartz from Sussex University, “Through the tools employed
by CLTS, a community comes to self-realization that
their acts of open defecation are disgusting. In disgust, I have seen some
people spit, others turn away from the direction of shit. Still others have
vomited at the sight of shit. Disgust is one of the key elements of a CLTS trigger. Disgust is ignited by the unpleasant sight of
shit, more so when the shit is still in its fresh and wet state.”
State funds to supply sanitation services are
invariably in short supply, so such gimmicks allow smirking Finance Ministry
technocrats in many countries to both decentralize the state and shrink it, and
in the process, shift duties to municipalities and vulnerable people, in a
process sometimes called ‘unfunded mandates’.
In this context, Durban residents like myself
are having a hard time separating good from bad arguments when it comes to
water quality and sanitation. First is the rumour, fed by media hysteria, that
drinking Durban’s increasingly grey water is bad for us. As the city begins to
mix recycled city sewage with river supply from the mercury-contaminated Inanda
Dam (where signs warn local fisherfolk against eating their catch) and other
E.coli-infected streams, will we end up as ill and thirsty as several unfortunate
neighbouring Mpumalanga Province towns’ citizens?
In many little dorpies stretching from Johannesburg east through Mpumalanga to the
Mozambique border at Kruger Park, acid mine drainage and related toxic effluent
from coal mining corporations flow prolifically. The national environment
ministry turns a blind eye. Between worsening climate change, declining air
quality and widespread water pollution, it is terrible but true – as even the
African National Congress (ANC) government admits in obscure reports – that apartheid’s ecology was better than freedom’s.
To illustrate, at the very tip of the ANC government’s
free-market, fast-melting iceberg, Cyril Ramaphosa’s coal company was let off
the prosecutorial hook last month for operating without a water license. Ramaphosa’s
political clout was simply overwhelming, according to a leading Pretoria bureaucrat
cited by the Mail&Guardian. Indeed it is likely Ramaphosa will become the
country’s second-most senior leader at an ANC conference in a fortnight’s time,
notwithstanding his smoking-email role in the Marikana mineworkers massacre,
carried out by police in August 2012 at the behest of the multinational
corporation Lonmin, for which Ramaphosa serves as local frontperson.
As for Durban’s tap-water quality, no, I
don’t think there’s any worry, and still have no qualms about ordering my
restaurant water straight from the tap. Much worse is the rise of plastic
bottles – see http://www.storyofbottledwater.org for gory details – which clog landfills and whose petroleum inputs soil
the air in South Durban, Africa’s largest refinery site.
There, children in the mainly Indian suburb
of Merebank suffer the world’s worst recorded asthma rate. The Malaysian-owned Engen
refinery and BP/Shell’s Sapref complex act like a massive pollution pincer on
the kids’ young lungs. Last week, even the slobs at the US Environmental
Protection Agency deemed BP – “Beyond Petroleum” (hah) – such a filthy rogue
that it may no longer bid for new oil leases there.
dirty water policy
Other gossip making the rounds here concerns
the world-famous water manager who runs Durban’s municipal system, Neil
Macleod. Billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates blogged
two years ago that Macleod “has been a leader in thinking through how to
improve sanitation for the poor in Durban”. But last month Macleod was charged
with corruption by his subordinates (whom he was investigating for the same
This came just at the moment that former Durban
city manager Mike Sutcliffe apparently intimidated his successor S’bu Sithole
into out-of-court-settlement talks over corruption libel that may leave
taxpayers shelling out as much as a million dollars to featherbed Sutcliffe’s supposedly
injured “reputation”. Although the Manase Report into city corruption – from
which Sithole made his claims that Sutcliffe should be jailed – remains a state
secret, in both the Macleod and Sutcliffe cases, I’m convinced that they are being
How, then, might we more fairly malign these men, not personally of course, but for the society-corrupting,
health-threatening, ecologically-destructive sanitation policies on their watch?
The most obvious evidence is the city’s
repeated embarrassment at reports of high E.coli and toxin levels in the rivers
feeding the ocean, especially after rains, leading to the loss of international
“Blue Flag” status at 10 Durban beaches four years ago. This month is vital for
attracting Johannesburg tourists, so the excessive recent storms make it doubly
hard for our hospitality industry, given last week’s reports about unsafe
So why do long stretches of Durban’s beaches become
unswimmable after rain? The primary cause is Macleod’s persistent failure to
address the vast sanitation backlog in more than 100 shack settlements across
the city. Here, Sutcliffe long refused to authorise standard municipal services
– such as water mains and bulk sewage – because of their informal
property-rights status, especially those near the traditionally white and
Indian areas subject to forced-displacement pressure.
Most shack settlements, in which around a
third of Durban’s 3.5 million people live, have only a few poorly (or un-)maintained
toilets, notwithstanding heroic efforts by their main social movement, Abahlali
baseMjondolo – most notably at the Kennedy Road shack settlement of 4000
residents and eight toilets (until ANC thuggery forced them out) – to raise the
profile of the problem.
As a result of loose excrement, E.coli flows
into our streams at a rate far higher than the recommended “safe” level of 100
parts per 100ml. The 2010 State of the
Rivers Report found the E.coli count in the “uMngeni River at Kennedy Road
up to 1,080,000. Cause: Informal Community on the banks of the Palmiet River.”
politics and toilet apartheid
Five years ago, Macleod
predicted to Science magazine that by
2010 “everyone [would have] access to a proper toilet”, while in reality, hundreds of thousands do not, today.
Neoliberal sanitation experts visiting Durban for the
Toilet Summit may rebut that the world cannot afford 12-litre flushes for
everyone, and that we must embrace some version of low-water toilets here. (I
agree that low-flush bio-gas digesters could be a fine compromise, supplying
cooking gas to nearby houses.)
Yet community critics regularly tell us that Durban’s water-less
“ventilated improved pit latrine” (VIP) and “urinary diversion” (UD – or “UnDignified”)
strategies are failing. If the municipality possessed a genuinely green
consciousness, then middle- and upper-class areas would have such pilot projects
– not just tens of thousands provided in the city’s low-income periphery.
I flush a few times each day and pay a small
premium: more than Durban’s poor can afford, but still not enough for the sake
of equity. Many South African readers of this article could easily cross-subsidise
their low-income fellow residents, by paying more for the privileges of filling
swimming pools and bathtubs, watering gardens, running washing machines and all
the other liquid luxuries we enjoy. This is, after all, the world’s most
unequal major country, and it’s far worse now than even during apartheid.
If those of us above the 80th percentile paid
more to deter our hedonistic water consumption, and if Macleod adjusted tariffs
downwards accordingly for poor people, then Durban would not be South Africa’s
second stingiest city for water, according to the University of the
Witwatersrand Centre for Applied Legal Studies. (The worst is nearby
Pietermaritzburg – both reflective of durable old-style Natal white
settler-colonial mentality and latter-day Zulu managerial conservatism.)
If such logical reforms were made to water
and sanitation prices, then better health and gender equity would result, and more
funds could be raised for installing decent toilets across the city, as well as
to repair sewage pipes whose cracks regularly infect our rivers and harbour.
enormous herds of white-elephant infrastructure – underutilised stadiums, a
fast train linking Pretoria and Johannesburg and Durban’s new airport – were
built across South Africa for the 2010 soccer World Cup, no one in power can
claim that construction capability or subsidised funding are lacking. What’s
missing is a more favourable politics of and by the poor, and so what will
continue to result is toilet apartheid.
Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society. He is author of Politics of
Climate Justice, UKZN Press]