School Water and Sanitation

The 2017 National Education Infrastructure Management System report indicated that of the 23,577 public primary and secondary schools in South Africa, there were:

  • 5,175 schools without water or with unreliable water supply
  • 68 schools with no toilets
  • 9,203 schools with pit latrines
  • 7,105 schools with VIPs
  • 2,912 schools with septic tank systems
  • 8,574 schools with flush toilets on municipal systems

This shows some of the very significant challenges being faced by school water and sanitation.

Programmes must be developed to ensure that water supply at schools is adequate and reliable as this is essential for maintaining productivity and hygiene. Hotter average temperatures and increased number of very hot days (over 35degrees C) associated with climate change will mean that readily accessible water for drinking at schools will become even more important for cooling and health. At the same time, many municipal water supplies are unreliable and struggle to meet demand, with a recent example being Cape Town where residents are required to reduce consumption to 50 litres per day.

Schools must also have sanitation which is affordable, healthy and avoids disease. Pit latrines in areas with high water tables, where there is periodic flooding and where there are boreholes and wells for drinking water are a potential health hazard.  Devastating outbreaks of cholera in Zambia in 2018  have been attributed to these circumstances. There are similar concerns with septic tanks and increasingly, cities such as Port Elizabeth, are demanding that conservancy tanks are used instead of soakaway systems.

Very large amounts of water are used to flush toilet and extensive infrastructure is required for the treatment of sewage. Municipal costs of water and sanitation are increasing and costs in Port Elizabeth can be up to R32/kl for water and R17/kl for sanitation. Sanitation based on conservancy tanks require pumping and costs of  R1,564.74 can be levied to empty these.

Due to water shortages, Cape Town costs are even higher. Calculations based on 2018 tariffs indicate that costs of water and sanitation, just for toilets, for a 1,000 learner school may be around R95,000 per year in Port Elizabeth and R326,000 per year in Cape Town.

Not only are the water costs of flush systems significant, capital costs can also be substantial with capital costs per toilet in Gauteng being estimated at over R66,000 per toilet in 2014.

At the same time, there is reduced funding for schools. Analysis indicates a decline in government spending per learner by 8% in real terms over the last seven years.

Given this situation, innovative, alternative solutions are required.

Composting toilets that may help address this situation and a number of different designs have been developed.  A version for schools is being piloted. This consists of flat-pack kits which are easy to transport and can be assembled in a day. The system relies on organic matter being added to the toilet after usage. This matter avoids smells and ensures contents rapidly decompose into compost. Locally available organic material, such as wood chippings from Working for Water Programmes, municipal composting schemes and agricultural waste from farmers can be used to produce valuable compost which can be sold, supporting local small businesses.

The school composting toilet programme, which has been presented to the Department of Education, has the following benefits:

  • No water requirements: Schools do not have to close down if water for flush toilets is not available (as currently happens
  • Much lower capital costs: Less than 20% of the costs of conventional waterborne sanitation
  • More rapid construction: Less than 10% of the time of conventional waterborne sanitation
  • Recognised as safe and healthy sanitation (WHO, DBE)
  • Much lower operating costs: Less than 20% of the costs of conventional waterborne sanitation
  • Easy to operate and use
  • Not dangerous for learners
  • No smell
  • Can provide additional fertility for school planting and grounds
  • Can provide valuable fertilizer which can be sold, supporting local enterprises