The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, L├®o Heller recently released a scathing report casting aspersions on the quality of drinking water in Botswana. This is not the first time that concerns have been raised over the quality of portable water in Botswana, as in 2013 the American Embassy in Gaborone issued an internal memo to its staff warning them not to drink tap water in Gaborone as it was unsafe to drink.
In a damning preliminary report, Heller observed that according to official data provided by the Water Utilities Corporation (WUC), the compliance level of microbiological analysis of eight out of 34 monitoring areas in the period of July to September this year was below 50 percent. He further said there was no up to date monitoring data available in three other monitoring areas. Heller also observed that while the WUC monitors the water quality of boreholes not connected to the network, the information of the individual boreholes is not reported or not easily available.
“In the villages I visited, some people said that the WUC sometimes collects samples of water of boreholes, but they were never informed of the results. The right to information concerning access to water and sanitation is an important element of human rights and people have the right to be informed of the quality of water they are consuming,” he said.
Regarding the quality of sanitation services, Heller said contamination of water sources due to inadequate management of pit latrines and leakages is a concern. As of 2015, he said, approximately one-fourth of the households have access to water-borne sanitation. If the household is located in an area where the groundwater table is shallow, the government does not allow the use of pit latrines or septic tank with soak-away, and encourages the use of so-called conservancy tanks.
While he acknowledged that there are two major wastewater treatment facilities in Gaborone and Francistown, he found that the latter does not have sufficient capacity at the moment.
“There are some localities with stabilization ponds as the wastewater treatment process, but usually the lagoons are overloaded and receive inadequate maintenance. Almost half of the population use pit latrines either in their premises or in shared-facilities,” said Heller.
He said pit latrines with proper slabs could be an acceptable solution if they follow certain standards, including the protection of groundwater. However, Heller said support from government to provide guidance regarding latrine construction and sludge management seems not to be adequate.
“In my view, some types of pit latrines, for instance, eco-toilets with a composting function could be explored by government as one of the adaptation measures to the effects of climate change. Eco-toilets reduce water demand significantly, and contribute to protecting precious water sources from being contaminated by wastewater,” said Heller.
In relation to the quality of water and sanitation services, Heller said waterborne diseases, particularly diarrhoea, are still common, particularly in rural areas. While a decrease of the trend of 2000-2012 was reported by the World Health Organization, diarrhoea was still the cause of six percent of all under-five deaths for the year 2013. The under-five mortality rate for 2013 was 47 per 1000 live births and there is an estimation of 180 deaths under-five due to diarrhoeal diseases.
“Fortunately, according to the relevant authorities and health workers I interviewed, there has been no report on diarrhoeal outbreak under the current shortage of water. The government should keep eye on the development as the lack of water often leads to unhygienic conditions,” said Heller.
In rural areas without networks, Heller said the consumption of water per person appears to be very low ÔÇô 15-20 litres per person per day. This is far lower than the absolute necessary water level under emergency situations (50 litres per person).A WHO study reveals that with access to 20 litres per person, the health concern level is high as hygiene practices are difficult with this amount.
“In a village I visited, people were fetching brown water from the river and were drinking it directly because they could not afford or have access to fuels to boil water. A significant part of people in rural areas use pit latrines,” said Heller.
He further observed that WUC charges the service of emptying pit latrines according to the distance between the town centre and the house.
“This could be an unfair charge for households who happen to live in remote areas. I recommend that the WUC explore a cross-subsidy system in charging this service. Some of the households rely on non-regulated private companies, which also implies affordability concerns,” said Heller.
In addition, he said, a large number of the population still resorts to open defecation in the bush.
“While the Ministry of Health conducts some awareness-raising activities, I would like to remind the government that raising awareness of health risks among the population as well as providing alternative solutions are also state’s obligations,” he said.
Following the water sector reforms, the WUC is now responsible for water service delivery and wastewater management.
“At the district level, emptying pit latrines and disposal of sludge were handed over from the district authorities to the district offices of the WUC. Both in rural villages and new settlements and resettlements I visited, people told me that they were happier with the services of water and emptying pit latrines provided by the district authorities,” said Heller. According to the people, Heller said, water provision became unreliable and emptying latrines became unaffordable after the WUC took over. They also raised concerns that it is difficult to identify whom they can consult with when problems with water and sanitation occur.
“I would like to remind that even in cases of delegation of water and sanitation service provisions to third parties ÔÇô either private or public companies ÔÇô the government is obligated to regulate and monitor the activities of those institutions, to ensure that all aspects of the human rights are guaranteed,” said Heller.