The sound of the evening bell at a local boarding high-school in Wajir, in the northeast of Kenya, did not always signal the end of the day's classes. Instead it marked the end of the evening bathroom break as “bucket toilets” were emptied for the day.
Such stories are commonly told with a mixture of humour and concern in the semi-arid region of Wajir, where most residents have little access to improved sanitation - with serious health implications.
"Wajir is prone to diarrhoea outbreaks," Francis Njoroge, Wajir East medical health officer, told IRIN. "Diarrhoeal diseases are [the] third [most] common illness in children below five years.
"Several factors could be contributory: the town lacks a sewerage system [and] uses a bucket system... people depend on boreholes... and many of the community water wells are not protected, exposing them to contamination," Njoroge said.
Outside the town, people use water from open dams, which they share with animals. "During the rainy season, run-off water washes animal waste into the dam, contaminating it," he said.
Wajir residents rely on shallow wells, due to increasing water salinity at depth, which are exposed to contamination during flash floods and from seepage.
The larger Wajir, which borders Somalia, Ethiopia, as well as the Kenyan towns of Mandera, Moyale, Isiolo and Garissa, lies in an area with large aquifers supplied by perennial rivers and dry seasonal river basins - also sources of contamination.
Like most of northern Kenya, Wajir has experienced a prolonged drought and livestock deaths. Animal carcasses litter watering points, posing a further health risk.
Wajir South Development Association (WASDA) programme manager, Haretha Bulle, told IRIN of the challenges.
Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
|Children at a shallow well: Most of the wells are uncovered exposing residents to the risk of using contaminated water|
"There are [largely] no flush toilets and no pit latrines," Bulle told IRIN. A few flush toilets can be found in some hotels and in newer settlements but are rare in households.
According to a UN World Health Organization report, latrine coverage in rural Wajir is about 5 percent and just a little higher in the town.
Because of the high water table, pit latrines are not viable, and residents mainly rely on unhygienic bucket toilets - improvised from plastic jerry cans.
"Waste is collected from the bucket latrines by a tractor, which serves the whole town," Bulle noted. The town has a population of about 220,000.
"Households are not able to dispose of waste [and] are forced to dispose it anywhere," she said. "When it rains, the whole town smells. The water gets contaminated more easily and changes colour."
Refuse pit and open pit dumping is prevalent.
El Niño threat
According to Wajir town resident, Khadijah Ibrahim, ongoing El Niño-related rains will only exacerbate the situation. Her family of eight shares one bucket toilet with three other households - about 24 people in total.
"Sometimes the municipal council comes to empty the bucket after a week or 15 days. By the time the waste collectors come, the bucket toilet is already overflowing," Ibrahim said.
Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
|Khadijah Ibrahim with some of her children. Children are particularly at risk of catching diarrhoeal diseases|
Her children, the youngest of whom is three, have been trained to wear shoes before going to the toilet to protect themselves, "but they only use soap to wash their hands before they eat", Ibrahim said.
The Arid Lands Development Focus (ALDEF) NGO is piloting eco-toilets, which use heat trapped by solar panels to burn human waste, reducing it to ash.
The toilets do not use water, instead relying on a dehydration/evaporation system. Diyad Hujale, ALDEF programme manager, told IRIN the target was mainly the town centre, which requires about 5,000 toilets.
Hujale recommended that Wajir town’s by-laws should make it compulsory for any upcoming construction to have an eco-toilet facility. The challenge, he said, is "how to get rid of the bucket toilet".
However, the cost of setting up an eco-san unit, about KSh60,000 (US$800), is prohibitive for private households.
Past recommendations to improve drainage and sanitation in Wajir have not yielded much, according to Bulle of WASDA. "It is one disaster after the other. When the rains come, we think of the drainage but forget about it when the drought comes."
At present, village elders in Wajir are being taught how to chlorinate the community wells, according to health officer Njoroge. Health education on the importance of protecting the wells is also being provided.
He said the construction of more toilets is being encouraged in new settlements, where communities are provided with water treatment chemicals.
"Health education is ongoing. Of importance is that there is continued disease surveillance in the district," he said. The solution lay in "providing clean water to the community and safe disposal of human waste via a sewerage system".