Sanitation and Development: Ensuring sustainability in the DRC

27 Nov 2015

Access to hygiene and sanitation facilities remains a dream for thousands of people in African countries, and it is time for change.

 Blog written by Pierre Panda: Executive Secretary, Green Ark Committee (GRC) from Democratic Republic of Congo, November 2015

Waste disposal in my country, and so many others, is generally done using domestic, public or open air landfills. Open air waste disposal – the most widespread practice – is very unhealthy as waste is often dumped along city roads and streets, and left to build up and rot, leading to a dramatic increase in the risk of the spread of diseases. It also appears that due to failures from public health bodies to manage final waste disposal services, this further hampers efforts to maintain sufficient environmental cleanliness necessary to reduce the risks to people’s health.

As a step to tackle such a threat to public health, urban municipal authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have enacted a decree prohibiting unhealthy waste disposal and have taken important remedial steps, such as mandatory community  work (commonly known as “Salongo”), to help improve the problems. However, these steps have generated little or no impact, as waste materials still litter and clog roads and streets in both urban and rural areas throughout the country. This situation has increased not only health hazards, but has also led to worsening environmental damage.

The problem is, that despite solutions aiming to be constructive, these steps to improve sanitation conditions have not been coupled with incentives or appropriate control mechanisms at all. Where such mechanisms are in place, they are merely exemplified by sporadic inspections conducted at random, unpredictable times by police officers. These inspections are to have a look at hygiene and sanitation facilities at the district and county levels, such as in various markets; they may eventually undertake waste collection around public places and institutions. For many citizens, the concept of “sanitation” is now primarily equated to the ‘periodic maintenance of the courtyard’ around the house and the latrines (if the latter are even available) just to avoid being fined, rather than this being based on maintaining high sanitation standards. In most cases and urgent calls, many of these deprived groups are forced to resort to defecating in the open, or to using soiled water for their basic needs. These problematic practices, coupled with insufficient or lacking access to adequate latrines, and a lack of hazardous waste disposal, results in the proliferation of flies. All these problems build up and in combination, increases the spread of harmful germs and infectious diseases. Sanitation related diseases increase mortality rates and further exacerbate the situation of low income households.  

Moreover, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes are often implemented by humanitarian organisations, and it has emerged that in many cases, the end of grants and funding cycles have led to declining conditions and failing structures. Such pitfalls have often been blamed on poor maintenance, lower community participation, lack of input from immediate beneficiaries, absence of local expertise and reliable bodies to monitor community sanitation indicators. Some sanitation initiatives have been insensitive to community involvement, or have completely neglected this important component, since they didn’t lay emphasis on ownership by – and positive practices among – community members. This oversight is due to the fact that mobilisation of community members is focused on getting paid jobs, and programmes are done without stressing the need for empowerment (ownership) and community participation, or work on a voluntary basis.

Therefore, building on experience and evidence that has emerged, it is worth asserting that WASH programmes and projects focusing on sustained community involvement pass off as a cost-effective way in responding to beneficiaries’ needs. Community involvement must be perceived as people “operated”, paying attention to the needs and realities of people’s on the ground, and providing the best dividends to all stakeholders. 

Also, the quality of communication in sanitation programmes is crucial to the success of interventions. Sustainable structures and behavioral change regarding hygiene practices require necessary important efforts to prioritise building communities’ awareness on the needs/benefits of putting up facilities, preserving systems’ maintenance and ensuring cost recovery. Nevertheless, improving sanitation facilities can be hard for people with low incomes because of socio-economic constraints, cultural beliefs and gender identities.

Unfortunately, most governments give less of a priority focus– and allocate fewer or no resources – to sanitation. This is despite the fact that an increased contribution to improving sanitation does make significant advancements towards the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals and achieving a positive change in one’s country. “We should have thought about putting up water and sanitation infrastructures before building the hospital; this would have reduced the spread of many diseases and improved our standards of living”, lamented a rural Congolese leader, upset by the plight of people afflicted by worm diseases and diarrhea.  

This needs to change. It is clear that ensuring access to training and resources such as reading materials, as well as implementing better sanitation facilities and maintaining high standards, will definitely improve the quality of life among residents in both rural and urban areas. We must ensure a better life for all!