03 October 2013

The lure of flush toilets and the rewards of patience

By Karen Allen, UNICEF Pacific Representative

I am in Malaita, Solomon Islands in a village. I am looking at a large, multi-layered concrete slab covering what I am not sure. On top is a concrete encased porcelain toilet bowl open to the elements. Of course it is full of rain water. Where are the walls and roof for this toilet? No wonder the UNICEF staff and community member look unhappy. Who built this toilet? Who is responsible for it? What is the story?

Toilet abandoned in a village in Malaita
with a concrete encased porcelain toilet bowl open to the elements.
© UNICEF Pacific/2013/Allen

This village was selected to receive our help with school water and sanitation. And clearly there is need: over 500 children enrolled from Pre-kindergarten through Form 3 and only two latrines visible. I guess most students prefer to wait to go home or use "the bush". A situation like this is particularly disadvantageous to girls, especially adolescent girls, and to female teachers, and likely contributes to girls dropping out of school. The water source is open, with a leaky dam and a leaky main pipe. The taps and stops were stolen before they were even installed, so the water runs constantly and there is insufficient pressure to bring the water very far. The pupil catchment area for the school is huge, and some students have to walk 8 kilometers to get to school there is no boarding facility. 

But the negotiations with the community members are taking some time. They want fancy flush toilets with lots of porcelain, plastic moving parts, piped water....yet we wonder how long they will last, and -- given what we can see of the abandoned toilet and the school latrines, will people really pay for the replacement parts and all the other fixing familiar to owners of flush toilets? The abandoned toilet is a kind of compromise, being a pour flush design. The villagers don't like that water must be fetched several times a day in a dedicated bucket, to flush the toilet. When this is not done, well, no need to spell it out, the toilet does not flush and its quite nasty. So, in their analysis, the solution is to bring piped water to every toilet, and install a more expensive flush system. Good they are analysing the problem and proposing a solution. But can we persuade them of another solution? One that is lower maintenance but still an acceptable improvement with maintenance commitment?  We do not want our school toilets to fall into disrepair and disuse, the donor funds to be wasted, and diarrhoea to continue among the school children. 

It is so much easier to "do the charity drop" a new building, water pump, toilets than to change people's minds. The latter is sustainable, the former makes people feel good, but does not last. Like cake and ice cream versus a nutritious meal. The community led sanitation approach starts with a consultative process, exploring pros and cons of many different types of toilets. Usually people will make the pragmatic decision when analysis is facilitated and lessons learned elsewhere discussed. No matter how long it takes, the final decisions made must be their decisions, not UNICEF's. The toilets they build must be ones that they have chosen and that they will maintain. 

So we re-start the discussion...(probably many visits and discussions will be needed.) Standing in a classroom, I peer through the rain and take a photo of the only latrine, decrepit and nearly covered with vegetation.

School latrine in a village in Malaita, decrepit and nearly covered with vegetation.
© UNICEF Pacific/2013/Allen
I learn that people living closest to the school do not think that maintaining it should be their work alone. Besides, they view it as a government facility, not theirs. "The school management committee must not be very effective since no one has repaired or made new latrines for the school?" I guess this was an impolite question because it was met with embarrassed silence. 

Move to village assembly hall where a church conference is taking place. Donald, our WASH specialist, raises the issue in a more polite, indirect way:
 "We are concerned about sustainability. When we leave everything is yours, yours to own, yours to use, yours to maintain."

A visiting Anglican bishop adds his voice: 
"Partnerships are important to us, and our part of the partnership must be maintenance." We are grateful that an influential local leader has chimed in. 

Break for a typical generous and delicious Pacific Island lunch, served to men (and me) by women. Again, we talk about this. "After the school water system and toilets are built, what ideas do you have to make sure that does not happen? Who will take turns to clean them and fix the roof and walls and door when necessary?" I suggested that if women would be doing some of the cleaning and maintenance, perhaps they should be on the committee? Big smiles from everyone. I am sure I am not the first outsider coming there talking about gender issues....

We agreed these were important questions for the next village meeting. Its for the children. Patience will be rewarded. 
 Girl with dress in mouth© UNICEF Pacific/2013/Allen

1 comment:

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