Two months ago, torrents that led to floods battered homes and latrines to the ground in Salisbury Township in Mzuzu.
The breakdown in sanitation put residents of the waterlogged slum on the edge of Mzuzu City’s commercial business district at risk of waterborne infections, especially diarrhoea and cholera. In the populous location, many people rely on shallow wells located close to pit latrines where human waste was seen spilling into run-off water during the downpour.
For Iness Usumani, the heavy rains signalled a hazardous season for her children often bedridden by hookworms and diarrhoea.
“Our latrines are full and we use a stick to empty it because we may have nowhere to relieve ourselves when nature calls,” she says.
During the visit, we found Usumani drawing water from an open well in her homestead. Measuring less than one-metre deep, the well is located three metres from a storm drain and nearly 10 metres away from two overflowing pit latrines. However, the national sanitation policy requires pit latrines to be at least 30 metres away from water sources.
“The latrines fills up every rainy season no matter how hard we try to empty the pit,” she says, pointing at the two latrines made of discarded sacks and residual timber.
Salisbury’s sanitation crisis mirrors the situation in its neighbouring swampy townships of Chibavi, Ching’ambo, Chiputula, Zolozolo and Chibanja.
“There is nowhere to run when nature calls. There are no bushes here. Every piece of land is occupied. We have no land for a new latrine,” says Usumani.
Her landlord is aware of the problem, but cannot do much because “every inch is occupied”.
In the neighbourhood, Patuma William abandoned a shallow well when the water started emitting a pungent smell.
“We had only used it for eight months when we detected a foul smell in the water. Every time we used the water to clean our home or utensil, it always left a strange stink. So, we abandoned it and started drawing water from our neighbours. We didn’t want to eat feaces,” she explains.
William suspects her well is contaminated with faecal deposits from nearby latrines often frequented by her children.
“This month alone, my four-year-child has suffered from diarrhoea thrice. He also defaecates hookworms twice a day. This water is not safe. We only use it due to poverty,” she laments.
The sanitation close at the heart of the Northern Region’s business hub has gone unnoticed by officials at Mzuzu City Council.
The area has a water kiosk where a 20-litre bucketful of water costs K100. Many unskilled workers, who end up in the township while escaping poverty in rural areas, cannot afford safe water. They liken the shallow wells to what oases are to pilgrims crossing a desert—some relief. They use the unsafe water for household chores, except drinking.
“But children sometimes drink it, especially in our absence,” she says.
A study done by the Mzuzu University’s Centre of Excellence in Water and Sanitation reveals that Mzuzu City’s underground water is contaminated by faeces and urine due to poor management of liquid and solid waste.
In the study, Joshua Mchenga, Rochelle Holm and Elijah Wanda found high levels of toxic contaminants— caffeine and bisphenol— after testing 32 groundwater samples from eight townships in a laboratory. The researchers targeted households that drew drinking water from shallow wells.
Mchenga, the centre’s technical programme officer, says Bisphenol A is associated with obesity, heart diseases, a hormonal disorder common among women, low sperm count and cancer.
“It also has potential to disrupt sleep,” he explains.
He reckons the polluting substances are common around septic tanks, waste disposal sites, mines and sewage overflows or leakages. The situation is made worse by poor disposal of expired goods, wastewater from industries and manure.
“There is need for regulatory control measures to prevent release of contaminants into water sources from solid waste disposal sites, wastewater effluent and sludge in order to avert their occurrence and distribution in water and other environmental segments,” recommends the study.
However, Mussa Mzumara, who owns a house for rent in Salisbury Lines, said he prefers emptying his pit latrines manually because hiring vacuum trucks is costly.
“Even if I had enough money to hire a vacuum truck, the vehicle cannot get to my house because there is no passage. The unplanned settlement is densely populated, with no access roads,” says the landlord.
Five years ago, Mzuzu City Council unveiled a strategic plan to provide piped water to 82 percent of the households. The ambitious plan was conceived to reduce the number of households drinking from boreholes, shallow wells or streams amid the push for universal access to safe water and sanitation in line with Sustainable Development Goal Six (SDG6).
The breakdown in water and sanitation is not confined to Mzuzu only. The situation is also common in swampy, high-density parts of Zomba, Blantyre and Lilongwe cities, where low-income families live.
According to water and sanitation specialist Christopher Chindole, pit latrines are affordable for many low-income households since they are constructed using locally available materials.
He explains: “The Salisbury situation is a common crisis in the country’s major cities, yet there are several technologies for locals to adopt in such terrains. With eco-san toilets called sky-loo, one doesn’t have to dig a foundation. To avoid contaminating groundwater, the toilets are built from the surface as long as there is a concrete slab.”