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WASSUP Diepsloot Continues Fight for Public Health and Safety in Face of Adversity  


In one of the most densely populated areas of Diepsloot, Johannesburg, South Africa, officials conservatively estimate there is one communal toilet, tap and drain for every 39 households. To make matters worse, the government and local authorities do not regularly maintain and repair those facilities, further endangering public health and safety.

Since being created in 2008 as an outcome of the UN Millennium Development Goals-inspired Global Studio program, community collective WASSUP Diepsloot — the Water, Amenities, Sanitation Services Upgrade Program — has led the effort to maintain water and sanitation facilities in this locality through an ongoing cycle of survey-fix and repair work, in constant consultation with residents. However, due to relentlessly increasing demand and financial challenges, WASSUP can no longer afford to lead the program and faces closure unless a sustainable framework for future operations can be put in place.

In response to this deadlock, WASSUP and the Johannesburg-based nonprofit Sticky Situations recently released a report highlighting the group’s efforts over the past decade, and calling for Johannesburg’s government to take over the Diepsloot program with a view toward implementing it in other settlements in the city.

The report, “Water Loss & Sewerage Leaks, Environmental & Health Crisis,” was released  March 28 and points out that of the estimated 25,000 registered shacks in Extension 1 — Diepsloot’s most densely populated area — there are only 642 communal toilets, or roughly one toilet, tap and drain for every 39 households.

The toilets are situated alongside uneven gravel pathways and clearings among the settlement’s shacks, often overflowing into the surrounding street and creating additional health and safety hazards.

The report lays out three goals: to highlight the work being done due to lack of government support and investment; to encourage the city of Johannesburg to take greater financial and technical responsibility for maintaining the services; and for the city to adopt and further adapt the people-centered program WASSUP has developed over the past 10 years.

Sticky Situations Director Jennifer van den Bussche said support from international organizations including Healthabitat O/S, the British Plumbing Employers Council (BPEC), the Australian High Commission in South Africa, the WorldSkills Foundation, and IAPMO (along with its International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Foundation) helped create and sustain the momentum that led to the report.

“This is something that has built up over time, and we’re really using the report — after over a decade of working in this field — to put in a final push to private sector and government sectors to say, ‘Come on, guys, we’re losing a billion liters of water a year; that’s costing everybody money,’” she said. “We need the WASSUP initiative embedded into government programs, but we also need private sector support in acknowledging the fact that if we don’t all put our heads together and combine our different resources and knowledge, we don’t really accomplish anything or make the world a better place for anyone.”

WASSUP team members, many of who live in Diepsloot, have firsthand knowledge of the health crisis.

“Sometimes toilets and taps are not working for months, and even years,” said team member Lerato Monama. “If we don’t fix them, no one will.”

“This our home where we live; our families are here, we work here, we play here, our children go to school here,” added team member Luckie Manyisi. “But people are getting sick, so we can’t keep standing by and doing nothing.”

“We have tried reporting problems to the City of Joburg, but leaks keep going, sometimes for years,” added Junitha Kgatla, another WASSUP team member. “We now report directly to Joburg Water repair teams. But the problem is that the infrastructure is not designed to service so many people, so it will keep on breaking.”

In 2016, WASSUP and the Diepsloot Arts & Culture Network successfully hosted the IWSH Community Plumbing Challenge in collaboration with Healthabitat. Sticky Situations facilitated the event, in which international students and apprentices representing South Africa, Australia, India and the United States repaired and installed communal toilet facilities for residents in the Extension 1 area of Diepsloot.

The CPC participants worked with local partners on the ordering and sourcing of local materials, equipment and tools, and collaborated to develop further solutions for the new and improved communal toilet facilities. The 2016 event also featured a Science and Engineering Forum hosted by Johannesburg Water, and official visits from representatives of participating countries including the United States Consul General and the Australian High Commission.

Van den Bussche said participatory development is a key part of WASSUP’s program.

“It’s about working with people on an equal footing where everybody’s knowledge around the table is equal,” she said. “I couldn’t work in a township if I didn’t have local partners. Local partners couldn’t do what they’re doing if we didn’t have Sticky Situations, IAPMO or Healthabitat and all those other supporters. So it’s acknowledging that what everybody brings to the table is equal, and the process is participatory in every sense.”

“The more we work with our community, the more they look after the toilets,” said Jack Molokomme of WASSUP Diepsloot.

IAPMO CEO GP Russ Chaney said the report provides an excellent overview of the challenges facing Diepsloot residents, as well as steps that can be taken to remedy the problem.

“This report signifies the challenges that result from the high concentration of inhabitants within the Diepsloot community, and specifically, what remedies need to be considered in order to address these major threats to providing a safe and healthy environment,” he said. “IAPMO and its industry partners, including our IWSH Foundation, have contributed to addressing these serious health and safety challenges. I’d also like to recognize the vital contributions of Jennifer van den Bussche at Sticky Situations, and WASSUP, a team of local tradespeople and volunteers who lead efforts in upgrading and maintaining the plumbing systems within the Diepsloot community.”

Van den Bussche said that while sewage lines, water lines and structures all fall under the purview of different government departments, no official routine maintenance is carried out on any of them.

The report estimates it would cost roughly USD $100,000 per year to continue WASSUP’s program in Diepsloot Extension 1, and van den Bussche said many townships are in need of such programs.

“Private sector funding can never replace government money in terms of rolling out these sorts of programs, infrastructure and maintenance,” she said.

Van den Bussche said the best way to create long-term sustainable change is through partnerships rather than outsiders coming in and simply throwing money at problems.

“WASSUP has demonstrated this in Extension 1,” she said. “The living environment here is so much better than what it was in years past. So the report is trying to quantify the improvements, and illustrating the issue of water savings is one critical example.”

Van den Bussche cited a recent visit from IAPMO’s Chaney; Dave Viola, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of Business Strategy; and Peter DeMarco, Executive Vice President of Advocacy and Research, as well as former World Plumbing Council Chairman Stuart Henry as being instrumental in helping revive WASSUP’s collaboration with the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA). As a result, she said, IOPSA agreed to help with the launch of the report and oversee completion of training and professional qualification for two members of the present WASSUP team.

“So that’s the sort of thing — you know these projects all need money, but I don’t want to ask people for money; local stakeholders and local industry need to support this,” she said. “We need the muscle and the pull and we need the influence; the ongoing international Community Plumbing Challenge program is a perfect example of how small, follow-up projects can continue to run that allow us to bring plumbers from all over the world to look at specific problems in our local area. The CPC has worked in India, Indonesia and the Navajo Nation, as well Diepsloot; it is so important we keep driving on with those partnerships and building those networks.”

IWSH Program Director Seán Kearney said the organization is ready and willing to help bring additional groups together to address the situation.

“We are actively working to support Sticky Situations and WASSUP in connecting with South African manufacturers and other plumbing industry groups who are interested in collaborating and helping the efforts in Diepsloot — and potentially other locations around Johannesburg, or further afield in South Africa. As former CPC hosts, and valued contributors to the other international projects IWSH have developed, we want to do all we can to get behind our partners: lead further fundraising efforts, facilitate new sponsorships, and help organize and involve other skilled tradespeople to support WASSUP, hands-on, in ways similar to our previous CPC activities in Diepsloot,” he said.

The report is available online at http://stickysituations.org/wassup.diepsloot.html.