Published on The Water Blog

How do we reduce waste woes in Wajir? Revamping existing on-site sanitation systems to achieve universal and safe sanitation

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Bucket toilet system in Wajir, Kenya Bucket toilet system in Wajir, Kenya

There is one thing that Nassir Harun, the Town Manager of Wajir, Kenya, wants to see before he retires: a city sanitation system that’s clean and dignified for its citizens.

Wajir is one of few cities in the world which uses a bucket toilet system for sanitation. Bucket toilets are also used in South African municipalities, especially those located in Free State, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape. Wajir’s system - which features government-provided buckets as backyard toilets, with weekly municipal waste collection - has long suffered from health and safety issues. When Nassir joined the Wajir municipal government as town manager over seven years ago, he knew that improving the system would be among his main goals.

“I really wanted to face that challenge,” Nassir said. “When I see that the sanitation problem of Wajir is solved and there is dignity - our ladies are using clean, hygienic sanitary facilities - then I will be good to retire.”

In October 2020, local government leaders and sanitation actors launched a project to revamp the nearly 100-year-old sanitation system with funding from the World Bank, under the Water and Sanitation Development Project. The initiative is being led by the Wajir County Government and Wajir Water Sewerage Company (WAJIWASCO).

Noting that previous attempts to improve the system have been hindered by lack of resources and sound technical advice, the proposed project aims to use the available resources and innovative technologies to convert the existing sanitation system into a clean, inclusive, and effective service. Although localized, the initiative has greater significance: Wajir could become a sanitation model for similar cities around the world.

This unusual sanitation system was created out of necessity. Environmental conditions in Wajir County, located in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid northeastern region, make conventional sanitation options like pit latrines or piped sewerage difficult to implement. The area’s high-water table causes frequent flooding, making construction of pit latrines infeasible. For sewerage, large quantities of water are needed for a wastewater treatment - a tall order in water-scarce Wajir - and the capital costs would be immense.

At least for the foreseeable future, bucket toilets are here to stay. However, the existing system needs transformation to make the service safer for residents, and for the waste collectors (commonly known as nightsoil men). Over time, the municipal waste collection system that was organized in zones, with each zone receiving weekly collection services, has become inconsistent, forcing families to empty their own bucket toilets in unauthorized areas. In addition, the absence of proper safety protocols for the waste collection team leads the collectors to engage in unsafe practices, like manually dumping overflowing waste buckets into exhauster trucks without personal protective equipment.

The project has brought on board Sanivation, a sanitation project developer that has experience with container-based toilets, to help the County and WAJIWASCO think through interventions required to address these shortcomings. Sanivation will introduce health and safety protocols, establish standardized operating procedures, and train WAJIWASCO’s and County Officials. On its part, the County will invest in hygienic buckets/containers, vehicles for waste transport, personal protective equipment and a fecal sludge treatment facility. The ultimate objective is to improve the town’s sanitation situation by addressing the entire sanitation service chain, from containment, emptying, transportation, treatment and re-use or disposal. This is aligned with the Citywide Inclusive Sanitation approach that the World Bank and other partners have been promoting globally with the mantra of “leaving no one behind.”

According to Osman Mohamed the Managing Director of WAJIWASCO, the changes will have widespread public health impacts. He says “Time and again, when it rains, there is an outbreak of cholera and other diseases. This project will greatly help to improve health within Wajir.”

Improving the system may seem like an obvious step, but globally, local leaders rarely invest in on-site sanitation. On-site sanitation facilities - where excreta and wastewater are stored on the plot where they are generated instead of being piped away for treatment - typically carry a negative perception. Seeing on-site sanitation as “unmodern,” many developing cities set their sights on sewerage without improving the systems they already have - even when those systems are causing residents to get sick, and when sewerage is only a distant possibility that reaches a few residents.

For the Wajir County leadership however, investing in improving the bucket-toilet system is a recognition that residents need dignified sanitation and better health now - not in several decades when (and if) sewerage arrives.

Wajir County’s environmental and financial obstacles to providing safe sanitation are shared by other secondary towns.  Even in resource-constrained environments, dedicated attention and technical advice from experienced operators can make on-site sanitation systems safe and livable.

As for Nassir? After the bucket toilet system is operating effectively, he will retire knowing he helped improve his community’s quality of life.

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