Monthly Archives

May 2023


By Frederick Clayton and Sonja Smith

Photography by Margaret Courtney-Clarke

Ever since independence, Namibians have sought education, employment and better lives in Windhoek, the country’s political and industrial epicentre. It’s harder to make a living in rural Namibia – southern Africa’s driest savannah – where there’s little to no infrastructure, investment or industry. With so few opportunities to work and study, thousands leave for the city every year, and the capital’s population has tripled since independence.

2022 – In Max-Mutongolume, an extension of the Havana informal settlement outside of Windhoek, toilets built by Development Workshop Namibia in 2019 for the Smart Kindergarten preschool are kept locked at all times for fear of vandalism. To use the toilets, which are painted with instructional graphics on how to use them properly, children are accompanied by a volunteer supervisor.

This influx of migration has stretched the city’s limits and worsened sanitation. Informal settlements, like Havana, have expanded uncontrollably as people arrive faster than Windhoek can provide services. These newcomers build shacks in tiny pockets of space without any regulation, arrangement or design. 

“There’s no structure, no planning; you cannot put in water pipes,” said Sebastian Husselmann, Windhoek’s chief engineer for bulk and wastewater. “How do you put a sewage network in an unplanned area?”

Conditions here are perfect for the spread of disease as overcrowding leads to the cross-contamination of faeces, water and food. “Some of them are 19, 20, 35 in one house. One toilet for 35 people – it’s not healthy or hygienic,” says Councilor Rodman Katjaimo.  

This is where Hepatitis E hit hardest, accounting for 62% of confirmed and suspected cases during Namibia’s recent outbreak, which started in 2017.

2019 – An oryx suffered a common fate for many wild animals in the arid Namib desert of western Namibia. The poorly maintained fences surrounding the national park separate wildlife from the few sources of water that exist on neighboring private land. In their search, the animals will try to jump the fence, only to end up trapped and mauled to death by jackals, vultures or hyenas

In the run-up to the 2019 elections, President Hage Geingob declared living conditions in informal settlements a “humanitarian crisis” and promised to rid cities of shacks before 2024. But this hasn’t happened. In Windhoek, they are now growing at a rate of 10% each year, according to Sade Gawanas, the city’s former mayor and member of the Landless People’s Movement Party. 

Namibia’s urban and rural development minister, Erastus Uutoni, declined to comment on the government’s failure to slow the growth of informal settlements, but, in February 2023, he said Namibia faced serious sanitation problems if urbanization was left unchecked. He called on local authorities to direct budgeting toward sanitation infrastructure and upgrading the informal settlements. 

Ten years ago, Letisia Nghiondjwa, 44, moved to Havana with her husband from Okanguati village in northern Namibia “for a better life.” She makes a living selling fat cakes — fried dough coated in sugar — and oshikundu, a traditional Namibian brew. But she and her husband are two of many who have been squeezed into dangerously squalid conditions.

“We live by the dumpsite, and when it rains you cannot sleep [because of] the smell,” she says. “It’s been 10 years now, and nothing much has been done by the government to make our lives easier… We sleep in sewage.”

Across the political spectrum, ministers, politicians and councillors have called for greater investment in rural areas, and yet Namibia’s rural development and coordination budget dropped 33% between 2019 and 2022, according to CCIJ’s analysis.

2022 – Martin Bonafatius, 32, and his neighbors work to extend a communal water point to the next neighborhood in Kavango East in northern Namibia. The government installed one tap for a large community, and so residents have chipped in to buy pipes and dig trenches to extend the line. Two 100-meter pipes cost N $5800 (or about $400), as well as a free dayÕs labor from six men. The first tap was installed in the 1990s. The residents have built seven more since 2020. ÒWe donÕt want to die waiting for [the] government,Ó he says.

“Everybody over the years has just been centralizing into Windhoek,” said Archie Benjamin, SWAPO member and CEO for the municipality of Swakopmund. “The intention of the government at independence was to develop the rural areas to such an extent that people don’t feel the need to relocate, but that has not really worked out.”

The government must act soon if it wants to address this growing issue. Urbanization is creating conditions that lead to more death and disease as settlements like Havana expand, and climate change is exacerbating the problem as persistent drought conditions for the past seven years have left many in rural Namibia who depend on crops and livestock jobless.

Simon Dirkse, head of climate at Windhoek’s Meteorological Institute, was pessimistic in his assessment of Namibia’s future and the impact of more extreme weather events. “Yes, climate change is forcing migration,” he said, adding “our poverty levels and these extreme events don’t go together.”

But people need to work. Selma Mpasi, 21, who sits in the shade selling oranges by the side of the road with her two-year-old daughter sleeping on her lap, said business is slow, with fewer tourists passing these days. “Our lands are so dry,” she says. “I want to go to Windhoek.”

2022 – Two typical government toilets in a state of disrepair in Havana, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Namibia’s capital.

Namibia is one of many countries in Africa struggling with the harshest impacts of climate change, but here the issue is amplifying the lack of adequate sanitation in and around cities.

Attempts to fill the sanitation gaps

 Ndahambelela Indongo, 39, lives in Max-Mutongolume, a community inside Havana informal settlement. She used to walk for an hour into the hills to find a safe space to defecate, but after learning about the negative health effects, she built her own toilet and tippy tap – a hygienic hand-washing mechanism that uses running water.  

Indongo got her information from a sanitation center run by Development Workshop Namibia (DW), an NGO that has helped communities across the country become open defecation free (ODF) – status granted when a community shows an ongoing adoption of good hygiene practice and all its members have access to sanitation facilities, with at least 80% of residents using them.   

DW does this by using Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), a collaborative, bottom-up approach aimed at achieving and sustaining ODF free status by focusing on “igniting a change in sanitation behaviour through community participation rather than constructing toilets.” Facilitators trained on CLTS help community members understand the consequences of open defecation, which they hope will lead to mobilization, a demand for sanitation and the community deciding for themselves what action they will take.  

Since its inception, DW says it has built 66 sanitation centers in public spaces that each include a demonstration toilet to incentivize residents to build their own. To date, it claims it has trained 323 local brick-layers in toilet construction, who can then offer their services to assist residents. (CCIJ has not been able to independently verify those figures.)

 In the absence of government-backed sanitation services and information campaigns, schemes like these have helped transform informal settlements and rural communities by creating a demand for sanitation and motivating residents to invest in solutions. But only 13 areas in Namibia are currently ODF. 

2022 – Roughly 90 kilometers outside of Rundu, Namibia, Mr. Hangura, 84, was en route from his far-off resettled farm to collect water for his family but got stranded with a punctured tire. While his oxen graze in the bushes, he waits for a grandson to return with a repaired inner tube, which he says could take two days.

 Organizations like DW and UNICEF cannot facilitate this kind of change nationwide, and Shuuya is realistic about what Namibia can accomplish without government support. “We are not going to be able to achieve the SDG6 goal unless something drastic happens,” he said. “We need a national campaign with proper government leadership to promote the importance of sanitation. That would really make a change.”

Reasons for hope 

Since the turn of the millennium, the number of people using basic sanitation services in Botswana has increased by 28.1%, and the country was among just a handful of sub-Saharan nations to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals of halving the number of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015, doing so five years ahead of schedule.

Botswana continues to improve sanitation by actively advocating and improving legislation while promoting hygiene. In 2017, the Ministry of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services laid out its responsibilities of “coordinating and monitoring sanitation services,” managing “on-site sanitation” and improving WASH services alongside the Ministry of Health. 

Botswana has also invested in both wet and dry sanitation. And, since 2001, the government has allocated almost a fifth of its budget to health care every year.

The nation now faces its own challenges in reaching zero open defecation by 2030, as diarrheal diseases remain a prominent concern, and there is still a stark gap between urban and rural sanitation levels. But Botswana’s government understands that prioritizing sanitation and public health underpins economic growth and better living conditions, which is reflected in deliberate strategy and policy. 

By contrast, progress in Namibia has faltered. However, there is still a chance that the country will embrace more aggressive investment and focus on improving sanitation by raising awareness and working with communities.  

SWAPO’s 2021 Harambee Prosperity Plan II allocated N$120 million ($8 million) to officially launch CLTS in Namibia and “increase WASH awareness through the community construction of latrines.” The government has also trained staff from four ministries on CLTS, while the latest draft of Namibia’s 2022-2027 National Sanitation and Hygiene Strategy combines “awareness development” and “changing social norms” with providing infrastructure.

Later in 2021, the government also launched the Namibia Water Sector Support Programme (NWSSP), one of the nation’s biggest ever infrastructure projects aimed at directly improving sanitation for 1 million Namibians, funded by a $121.7 million loan from the Africa Development Bank in 2019. Targets include reducing open defecation in rural areas to 55% by 2025 and ensuring access to improved sanitation services for all Namibians by 2030.

2019 – Though living in a country plagued by hardships, Selma Jacobs performs a traditional rain dance across the barren Omongwa (ÒSaltÓ) Pan in eastern Namibia. Of prime importance to the Kalahari bushmen/San groups are ritual dances that serve to heal the group. Here Selma goes into a trance dance while women clap their hands and chant to her altered state of existence. Birth, death, gender, rain and weather are all believed to have supernatural significance.

When the project was launched in August 2021 by Calle Schlettwein, Namibia’s Minister for Agriculture, Water and Land Reform, he urged service providers, contractors and consultants not to cut corners and appealed for “accountability, transparency and a corruption-free atmosphere to prevail.” 

This sounds good on paper, but after more than a year, the scheme’s major projects are still in the design and procurement phase. Schlettwein’s office admitted that the NWSSP had had “a slow start” and that “much more funding” would be required to meet SDG6. 

Lukas Shilongo, 21, who lives in Havana, is already skeptical. “They make campaigns, lie to us, then they forget,” he said. “They promise us water, electricity, toilets. [They don’t] come.”

Gawanas, the former Windhoek mayor, agreed that leaders had used sanitation as a campaign tactic during elections and later broke their promises. “I don’t think [politicians] want to solve the problem,” she said. “They want to keep people begging for more because it is their tool to stay in power.”  

Geingob was reelected as president for a second term in 2019. However, that election saw SWAPO’s vote percentage drop significantly from 87% in 2014 to 56% — its biggest loss of support in the nation’s history, as drought, recession and a massive corruption scandal weighed on voters.

2022 – By this time of year, in the rural Kavango East region of northern Namibia, residents would usually be plowing their farms. Now that the rain arrives two months later, their only business is to sell oranges on the roadside.

As Namibians return to the ballot box in 2024, they may be tired of begging for their human rights, too. As SWAPO’s electoral dominance fades, politicians of all parties and at every level could be forced to keep their promises on sanitation services, or risk being held accountable at the polls. 

Alfons Kaundu, a Mbunza traditional authority chief in rural Namibia, thinks that’s a possibility. “People are suffering here,” he said. “The government is not respecting people’s rights. [But] maybe the next election is going to be different.” 

Namibia’s rural development and coordination budget drop was calculated using Vote 17 found in Government Accountability Reports from 2019-2020 and 2021-2022.

This report was produced by the Centre for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), a non-profit organisation that brings together investigative reporters, visual storytellers and data scientists to investigate key global issues affecting communities. This report was supported by the Pulitzer Centre.


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By Frederick Clayton and Sonja Smith

Photography by Margaret Courtney-Clarke

In 2012, a UN special rapporteur said Namibia’s sanitation deficit was due to a “lack of a common vision” and an “absence of effective coordination among the different ministries.” In 2023, these are still the biggest obstacles to improving sanitation.

Xhuka Shorty and his family are San, an indigenous group of people in southern Africa. Eight years ago, he and 16 members of his family were evicted from the farmland where they had lived and worked as labourers for generations. 

Left to survive off Shorty’s monthly pension of N$1300 ($87), they migrated to Katumba village in northwest Namibia, where they lived under the shade of a tree. One day in 2019, the government installed a toilet next to Shorty’s tree. “What am I supposed to do with this?”, he asked. 

Shorty was given a dry toilet — a type of toilet that uses no water or chemicals to move waste along. Instead, excrement drops into a tank or bag that must be emptied and cleaned. The lifetime costs of dry toilets are lower than that of flush toilets as they save on water, and some even produce fertilizer from the dried waste. In southern Africa’s driest country, where sewage connections reach just 35% of citizens, they are vital to providing sanitation.  

But they do require more work. There’s no water seal to protect from the smell, so things can get ugly quickly without daily cleaning and good ventilation. Every so often the tank must be emptied. And if the toilet is a pit latrine, then one must dig another hole and move the pot before next use. There are also things you can’t always put down the hole – such as water – and, like all toilets, sometimes they need fixing.

None of this is obvious, especially if you’ve never used one.

2022 – A self-built shower, locked with wiring, by the side of the road in Havana informal settlement on the outskirts of Windhoek, Namibia. Photo: Margaret Courtney-Clarke

In 2012, after visiting Namibia, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, outlined that public participation “in the design, implementation and monitoring” of toilet initiatives would be indispensable in providing the country with sanitation. She also warned that the benefits of investing in sanitation would be lost if the government failed to give equal attention to “hygiene promotion and awareness raising on the benefits of safe sanitation.”

Simply put, building toilets would not guarantee their use. People must want to use them, but to create that incentive many Namibians, who had lacked adequate sanitation for decades, would need to be educated on the benefits and instructed on proper cleaning, maintenance and hygiene.

The government acknowledges this. In fact, the government’s 2008 Water Supply and Sanitation Policy outlined that improving sanitation would be achieved by “community involvement and participation.” And yet it appears it has not followed its own guidance.

In 2012, the government constructed 10,000 dry Ecosan toilets across five northern regions at a cost of N$181.5 million ($22.4 million), but many are no longer usable because residents say they were not provided with instruction, promotion, cleaning or maintenance guidance upon installation.

Paulus Mutikisha, the headman for Ekolanaambo, a village in northern Namibia’s Oshana region and one of the beneficiaries in 2012, told the Namibian Sun in 2019, “We have never used [the toilets] because we were never trained on how to use them,” adding that some facilities were not installed properly. ”Money has been wasted, and the structures are… falling apart,” he said.

2022 – From their home in Katondo village in Kavango West in northern Namibia, Elizabeth Katota and her family walk down to the infested Okavango River each evening– as do so many families. Photo: Margaret Courtney-Clarke

In 2014, many beneficiaries of a scheme that aimed to build 6,500 pit latrines across the country returned to the bush to defecate. Residents of the Coblenz and Okondjatu villages in central Namibia complained about the stench, bemoaning their inability to keep the toilets in good condition. “We only have a few of these dry pit toilets, and as much as they are helpful, we are challenged when it comes to their maintenance,” Unjee Usora told the Namibian. “At the end of the day, the toilet is filled with faeces.”

The latest draft of Namibia’s 2022-2027 National Sanitation and Hygiene Strategy, reviewed by CCIJ, accepts that “[u]ser involvement in the choice of sanitation systems and their construction, operation and maintenance [was] limited… [leading] to sanitation facilities not being used, operated or maintained properly.”

Flush or dry, providing sanitation is not just an infrastructure project, and the government is aware of this too. It was the duty of the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform (MAWLR) to organize “the training of communities on operation and maintenance,” according to the government’s 2010-2015 National Sanitation and Hygiene Strategy. The Ministry of Health and Social Services (MoHSS), meanwhile, was responsible for conducting “hygiene education in rural areas and informal settlements.” But this doesn’t appear to have happened.

In fact, according to the latest draft of Namibia’s 2022-2027 National Sanitation and Hygiene Strategy, MAWLR and the Ministry of Urban and Rural Development (MURD) alone built 20,230 sanitation facilities between 2009 and 2019, yet “no community involvement and participation or sanitation hygiene promotion activities were incorporated.” During those 10 years, open defecation dropped by just 2.7% nationwide, while sanitation levels in urban areas actually declined.

CCIJ asked Dr Elijah Ngurare, MAWLR’s Deputy Executive Director for Water Affairs, why Namibia had failed to engage communities in training and operation or to run a national campaign promoting hygiene. He said, “Sanitation challenges have been acknowledged and the government has now decided to scale up the process… construction, maintenance and rehabilitation is going to be the norm. This includes both rural-urban and rural sanitation.”

But the government has made implementing such strategies as complicated as possible. Rather than centralizing responsibility for improving sanitation, seven ministries, regional councils and local authorities have each been tasked with its delivery: MAWLR, MoHSS, MURD, the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture (MoEAC), the Ministry of Environment Forest and Tourism (MEFT) and the Ministry of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare (MGEPESW) each have funding for sanitation in their budgets.

Meanwhile, local authorities – partly funded by the central government – are responsible for providing sanitation in urban areas, including informal settlements, and the Ministry of Work and Transport (MWT) is responsible for developing new and managing existing wet sanitation systems.

This division of duties and funding makes it especially difficult to monitor and track investment in sanitation, as well as Namibia’s adherence to the 2015 Ngor declaration, in which the government promised to annually commit a minimum of 0.5% GDP to sanitation and hygiene from 2020 onward.

The latest version of Namibia’s 2022-2027 Sanitation and Hygiene Strategy acknowledges that the government and local authorities “do not have a clear budget line for sanitation… As a result, the sanitation budget is… difficult to track.”

Shuuya of UNICEF Namibia said this contributed to poor coordination of the sanitation sector, something the government admitted in its 5th National Development Plan. “The sector is… not playing together,” he explained, adding he was desperate to see the Namibian government develop a separate sanitation budget so that it could monitor funding moving forward.

The consequences of insufficient governance are evident in surveying the Namibian landscape. Damaged, disused and derelict government toilets can be found across the country. Often, they are filthy beyond use, blocked by a newspaper or filled with excrement, and a considerable number no longer function.

2019- Xhuka Shorty, aged 102, and his family settled under a tree in Katumba village, now a Herero settlement in the Otjozondjupa region of Namibia, in 2015

Cutting corners

At a time when sanitation is in desperate need of a dedicated, coordinated and potentially more costly approach, those in the private sector say the government has complicated their efforts to provide more sustainable options. 

Eline van der Linden is the executive director of Omuramba Impact Investing, the sole distributor of a dry toilet called the Enviro Loo. Unlike the ventilated pit latrines preferred by the government, her toilets reduce odor by separating waste from urine and are built with a closed container that prevents groundwater pollution. Crucially, she also offers user and maintenance training upon installation — including refresher courses on cleaning and maintenance with locals who can then charge the community a fee for their services as cleaners or janitors. 

But the technology and training come at a higher price tag, which is why van der Linden no longer bids on government tenders. Her cost simply exceeds government specifications.

“[The government] thinks cheap solutions will last,” said van der Linden, who has never seen training included as part of a tender. “When they do put dry toilets down, they do it without any additional effort… No toilet system will work without educating communities on daily cleaning.”

A proper approach is not as cheap and easy as simply building toilets, but it has proven effective. In 2010, German development agency Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) supported the Omaruru Basin Management Committee (OmBMC) in central Namibia by providing 140 residents inside an informal settlement with 21 dry Otji toilets, designed by Namibian NGO Clay House Project (CHP).

CHP staff built the toilets while training local labourers how to do so too, and nurtured a sense of ownership as beneficiaries made a small financial contribution and assisted in painting and digging. Each toilet was equipped with instructions and handwashing facilities, and CHP also conducted an awareness-raising campaign to promote the use of toilets which remained in use and well maintained more than 18 months later. The OmBMC said there was even demand for 100 more. 

But more toilets required additional funding or subsidies from the Municipality of Omaruru via MAWLR. As well as their relatively high cost, the local authorities also considered them inferior to “high-class” flush toilets despite the extra maintenance, construction and operational costs of flush toilets. A 2012 CHP report on the Otji toilets concluded that “[w]ithout the support of decision-makers, it will not be possible to establish a dry sanitation system on a large scale.” 

Van der Linden says she has encountered the same stubborn obsession with flush toilets, and markets her toilets as a sustainable “in the meantime solution” for people who will one day, ideally, have flush. Her Enviro Loos, like Otji toilets, are not the cheapest on the market, but she thinks that instead of investing larger amounts in the best dry toilets, the government would rather wait to score points with flush toilets. “They do not see any benefits in dry sanitation,” she added. 

Shuuya says there’s some truth in this. Under the apartheid regime, which preceded Namibia’s independence, “flush toilets were the preserve of the colonizers, the white people,” he explains. “Blacks were provided with pit toilets and bucket toilets.”

Namibia’s Minister for Health and Social Services, Dr Kalumbi Shangula, declined to comment on the historical connection, but Shuuya argues that this helps explain why many Black Namibians still perceive even quality dry toilets as inferior.

“But then there are practicalities,” Shuuya notes. “You can only have a flush toilet when you have water.”

Windhoek rural constituency councillor and member of the opposition party the Popular Democratic Movement, Petrus Adams, has flush toilets in his town, Groot Aub, but residents don’t always have enough water to use them. “[But] open defecation,” he says, “what does it cost?” 

In a country where almost a third of citizens worry about where their next meal will come from, many can scarcely afford the 16,000 litres of extra water it costs to flush a toilet per person each year.

“Wet sanitation risks making unaffordable water even more unaffordable,” added de Alberqueue, the UN’s special rapporteur who urged Namibia to promote dry toilets in her 2012 report, warning that if people continue to perceive dry toilets as inferior, they would never embrace them. But she advised that no one size fits all, and that “communities and households must have choices about which sanitation technology suits their needs best.”

This, too, requires community engagement, and while that outreach is costly, so is the price of poor sanitation. Shangula told CCIJ that inadequate access to sanitation was leading to sickness and infection, while the risk of disease and pollution also threatens tourism and agricultural industries.

“There’s a need to establish what the cost of inaction is,” added Shuuya. “Perhaps the decision-makers don’t have the evidence to say, ‘This is what we’re losing out on by not investing in sanitation.’” 

But while the full cost of Namibia’s crisis is unknown, it is clear the government has significant work to do to address it in a timely manner.

2022 – A couple returns home after walking a kilometer out of town to defecate in the Democratic Resettlement Community.

A weak defence

By the government’s own admission, sanitation has stalled in recent years, and the various ministries tasked with improving sanitation have each failed to prioritize the sector

MURD, for example, has failed to hit its toilet targets in four of the last five years. In 2021, the ministry promised to construct 10,000 new toilets in rural areas but built only 980 before claiming the original target was “erroneously indicated” and that 1,000 was the real target. In explaining the failure to meet even the 1,000 toilets target, MURD said “late submission of activity plans and accountability reports from the regions result[ed] in late approval of budgets.”

The sector has also failed to communicate its strategy with members of parliament. A draft of Namibia’s 2022-2027 National Sanitation and Hygiene Policy acknowledged that one of the biggest obstacles were politicians and local authorities continuing to promise flush facilities as ministries agreed to promote dry sanitation in urban and rural areas.

And 14 years ago, the government outlined plans – with input from four ministries, local authorities and the office of the prime minister – to stimulate “behavioural change” with a national hygiene campaign. This was supposed to happen by 2015, yet Namibia has still not had a nationwide campaign to promote both sanitation and hygiene.

MAWLR, charged with the coordination of government sanitation services, admitted via email to CCIJ that challenges in improving sanitation included “poor sanitation practices and the non-involvement of communities,” but said limited access to water, resources and finance remained a hindrance. 

But vast sums have been allocated to the ministries responsible for sanitation. Whether those funds are actually spent on sanitation is a matter of priority, and, in 2022, MAWLR cut its Water Supply and Sanitation Coordination budget by 72.7%

Ngurare admitted that “most funding earmarked for water and sanitation in the last couple of years had unfortunately been redirected to the Neckartal dam,” Namibia’s largest dam that supports a large irrigation scheme in the south.

Shangula, the health minister, also blamed a lack of funds, arguing low tax revenues prevented Namibia from prioritizing sanitation. “You can only [improve sanitation] if you have money, and we don’t have enough for it,” he said. “The economic base of Namibia is very small.”

But, again, it may just be an issue of prioritization. In recent years, the lion’s share of Namibia’s health budget allocation has been spent on curative rather than preventative services, with little left for projects that could promote sanitation and hygiene.

And while Namibia may have a narrow tax base, according to the World Bank, it generates more tax revenue per capita than Botswana, Lesotho and almost as much as Zambia, three countries in southern Africa with better sanitation coverage than Namibia.  

Shangula denied that other countries in the region were performing better than Namibia – with lower defecation rates and better access to sanitation – despite being presented with data that ran counter to his claim. “Botswana has a similar setup with Namibia… they are struggling with the same issues we are,” he said. “I don’t think that comparison is correct.”

While Botswana also struggles with poor informal settlements, sparsely populated rural areas, water scarcity and an arid w, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF’s Joint Monitoring Programme, 80% of its citizens have access to at least basic sanitation, more than double that of Namibia.

Even at the highest levels of government, a lack of familiarity with the data is not uncommon. In Namibia’s preparatory meeting notes to the UN ahead of the 2023 water conference, the government claimed 46% of rural communities have access to “safely managed sanitation,” but Namibia’s own census mapping report, published in the same year, states less than 27% of Namibians in rural areas have such access. Calle Schlettwein, Namibia’s Minister for Water, Agriculture and Land Reform who attended the conference in New York, declined to comment on the discrepancy.

Eleven years ago, de Alberqueque said Namibia’s sanitation deficit was not a result of a lack of finances, but a “lack of a common vision,” “prioritization” and an “absence of effective coordination among the different ministries and between central and local government.” In 2023, these are still the biggest obstacles to improving sanitation. 

But where the government has fallen short in reaching its stated sanitation goals, others are now stepping in. However, urbanization and climate change are pushing back, escalating a crisis that threatens more death, disease and contamination in the next decade.

This report was produced by the Centre for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), a non-profit organisation that brings together investigative reporters, visual storytellers and data scientists to investigate key global issues affecting communities. This report was supported by the Pulitzer Centre.

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Frederick Clayton and Sonja Smith

Photography by Margaret Courtney-Clarke

Every day, Natalia Shaanika, 15, escorts her five younger siblings across a busy road to a landfill site to relieve themselves. As they squat – partially hidden by scraps of corrugated iron and used toilet paper – their older sister keeps watch.

When a car comes their way, Shaanika hurries them back half-naked toward their shack. Flies swarm over a bucket of water where they each wash their hands.

“We are a family of eight in a shack in a community that has no water points or toilets,” says Shaanika, who resides in Swakopmund’s Democratic Resettlement Community (DRC), one of Namibia’s largest informal settlements, where some 20,000 people live without running water or sewerage.

2019 – A toilet in Epukiro Pos-3, a.k.a. ÒThe Lost Place,Ó a bleak encampment in a hostile environment for bushmen who have been evicted from private farms in the Omaheke region of Namibia. This region is the least populous in the country and is largely known today as a place for hunting game by tourists. However, it is also the site of the 20th centuryÕs first genocide, when tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people died at the hands of German forces. Under apartheid rule, they were then removed from their land and placed into camps based on ethnicity. As of 2021, the German government has agreed to pay 1 billion euro over 30 years for projects in communities impacted by the genocide. Up until recently, these groups were excluded from the discussions of German reparations.

These conditions mean Shaanika and her siblings suffer from frequent infections and bouts of diarrhoea, along with the thousands of other men, women and children who use the same and other similar strips of wasteland as toilets in the DRC.

Their struggle is not unique. From the outskirts of cities to the most rural parts of the country, over 1 million Namibians lack adequate access to toilets, and they are often faced with only one option: open defecation.

According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF’s Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) 2020 data, Namibia ranks sixth for the highest rates of open defecation in the world at 47%. Less than half of the country’s 2.5 million citizens use facilities that safely separate waste from human contact, while some 5% use inadequate facilities such as open pits, buckets and hanging latrines.

The nation’s severely low levels of sanitation stand in stark contrast to the rest of southern Africa, a region where Namibia ranks the worst for sanitation coverage. Its rates of open defecation are more than double Angola’s to the north and almost five times higher than that of either neighboring Botswana or Zambia.

The consequences extend far beyond foul odor. The sheer amount of human feces deposited in and around Namibian homes makes avoiding contact and even ingestion almost impossible. Excrement litters the ground in spaces between shacks where children play with dirty hands, and flies travel freely from waste to fluids and food. As feces seep into the environment, crops are contaminated alongside vital water sources used for drinking, cooking and fishing.

These conditions put Namibians, especially children, at risk of deadly fecal-oral diseases and infections that cause diarrhoea, the second biggest killer of under-fives in the country, while sanitation-related deficiencies such as malnutrition and stunted growth are also prevalent.

2022 – A typical homemade toilet in the Democratic Resettlement Camp outside of Swakopmund, Namibia.

“If we don’t change our trajectory, things are definitely going to get worse, especially in the informal settlements and in the rural areas,” said Matheus Shuuya, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) specialist at UNICEF Namibia. “We will experience more children getting sick… I’m sure we will also experience frequent outbreaks of other diseases.”

Education, dignity and safety are in jeopardy, too. Girls’ inability to manage their menstrual health on school premises that lack adequate sanitation leads to increased absenteeism, while Namibians risk rape, robberies and even wildlife attacks as they are forced to seek the privacy of the bush.

Reinard Enrich, 18, was attacked at night while defecating on a landfill in Havana, an informal settlement outside of Windhoek, the nation’s capital. “The absence of toilets has made our situation unsafe,” he said. “I was minding my own business, playing music on my phone. Two men approached me – one grabbed me by my throat, and another grabbed my phone. I couldn’t do anything, so I do not go out when it’s dark anymore.”

However, Namibia has ratified the core international human rights treaties which protect the right to sanitation, while its own constitution calls for “consistent planning to raise and maintain an acceptable level of nutrition and standard of living of the Namibian people and to improve public health.”

Namibia’s 2008 Water and Sanitation Supply Policy outlines that “essential water supply and sanitation services should become available to all Namibians, and should be acceptable and accessible at a cost which is affordable to the country as a whole.” The South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) Party, which has governed the country since independence in 1990, has also committed Namibia to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal Six (SDG6) of ensuring all of its citizens have access to clean water and sanitation by 2030.

But according to JMP data, analyzed by the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), stagnant sanitation levels over the past decade mean Namibia is not on course to hit these targets – not even close. While over 1 million Namibians wait for this basic human right to be granted, the government appears to be taking too few steps to address a crisis that may yet worsen due to climate change and rapid urbanization.

Despite pouring billions of Namibian dollars into sanitation in recent years, the country’s 5th National Development Plan stated that the sanitation sector has suffered from “poor coordination, lack of accountability, and spreading efforts and resources too thinly.” Though the current administration has vowed to improve sanitation access and to invest in educating Namibians on the value of good hygiene, it’s still too early to assess how successful this initiative will be.

Dr. Kalumbi Shangula, Namibia’s Minister for Health and Social Services, recognized the struggles facing Namibians. He told CCIJ that low sanitation was overburdening health services and keeping Namibians out of work, but he remained optimistic that conditions would improve. “[G]radually [sanitation] will catch up… As long as there is good will and people are talking about strategies, there is hope,” he said.

But many Namibians need more than hope.

Hilma Hamalwa, 35, lives a 30-minute walk from Shaanika in the DRC. When she realized that her neighbors were suffering from the same infections and illnesses after using the bush to defecate, she dug a hole in the ground for them — and added four slabs of corrugated iron for a little privacy.

“This is not the kind of life a human being should live,” she says.

The scope of the sanitation problem

Namibia’s informal settlements are among the hardest hit by poor sanitation. According to World Habitat, 40% of Namibians live in informal settlements. And, according to the Namibian Chamber of Environment (NCE), more than half of them lack access to any toilets at all. The NCE also estimates that at least 45 tons of human feces are deposited through open defecation each day in Windhoek’s informal settlements alone.

Havana is one of the largest informal settlements, with more than 50,000 shacks that squeeze up against one another. Men, women and children find pockets of dirt to relieve themselves on their way back from church, school or the market. Tissues, sanitary pads and excrement litter the ground.

2022 – Fish caught in the contaminated Okavango River are dried and later sold on the side of the road in the Kavango West region of Namibia. The lack of employment and scarcity of basic resources in the countryÕs rural areas pushes many people to rely on often unsafe practices to survive.

Several government toilets in Havana are in disrepair, with doors hanging off their hinges and latrines clogged to the brim. For those who have access to these toilets, many choose open defecation as the lesser of two evils.

Johannes Nghidinwa, 53, sits on the deck in front of his shack with his wife, who cradles their five-month-old baby. Their home rests in the shadows of a landfill site that has become one of many open-air communal toilets in Havana. “We are a community of thousands of people, but the toilets here are very few; you can count them on your hands,” he says. “Not a week passes by without any of us getting sick with diarrhea, fever and flu.”

For many others, especially women, the risks of using the bush at night are far too high, and they must defecate inside their own homes instead. Janet Gaes, 34, lives with her four children in Windhoek’s Otjomuise 8ste Laan informal settlement, and her shack sits on a hill overlooking a dry riverbed overflowing with toilet paper. During the day she takes her children to the riverbed, but at night they share a bucket at home.

“We do not go to the riverbed when it’s dark,” she said, washing her one-year-old on the path outside. “People get assaulted there, so at night we use the bucket to relieve ourselves. Then we throw the faeces out in the morning and wash [the bucket] again to use for the following night.”

Surpassing 70%, open defecation levels are even higher in the rural areas. According to 2020 data, almost half of Namibians are sprawled throughout sparsely populated villages that dot the horizon. Residents with water struggle to keep that water clean, and those without water often turn to river and groundwater supplies contaminated with their own excrement. Even clinics and schools lack adequate sanitation.

Mukennah Scholastika is the headmistress of a public primary school in rural Kavango East in northern Namibia, where students gather under the heat of classrooms built from corrugated iron. “We have 330 students. Until last month, we had no toilets, and they had to use the bush,” she explained.

2022 – The Ngcove Junior Primary School in Ndama, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Rundu, was built by the San (bushmen) community for their children. Up until a month before, there were no toilets on site. Now, thanks to community efforts, there are two toilets for 330 children and one for the teachers. There is no water tap on the premises, and each child is expected to bring a bottle of water to class.

“Students come late for class, and they are exposed to dangers in the bush like insects and snakes. Some go home and don’t come back again. Sometimes they even defecate in their clothes. Girls will miss school, especially when they are on their period,” Scholastika added.

She asked the parents to contribute toward the construction of two toilets for the students and one for the staff, each of which were built by the community and are maintained by the teachers. Long queues form before class starts in the morning. “We have one for the boys and one for the girls,” Scholastika noted.

2022 – Waste products, including sanitary napkins and infant diapers, are constantly being burned in the middle of Havana informal settlement. Residents keep the fires burning to manage the ongoing refuse produced in the camp and often fall sick with respiratory illness as a result of the fumes.

To avoid cross-contamination or contact with excrement is extremely difficult, but keeping clean is a challenge even health professionals face in rural areas. Nurse Sem Tetera, 23, helped to deliver a baby by the side of a road in Kavango West, Namibia’s poorest region with the poorest sanitation coverage. The new mother was rushed to his clinic, a small building with no toilets that only has water when the village chief can afford it.

“It’s a struggle working here,” said Tetera. “Most of the time we have no water, and it is a huge problem for us to work without it.”

In March 2023, Namibian Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila said the government had “identified the need to improve universal access to sanitation and hygiene in informal urban settlements and rural communities.”

2014 – A handmade toilet in the Democratic Resettlement Community was built by scraps from a nearby garbage dump to serve the needs of a then-nascent community of internal migrants. Formed in 2001, the DRC was intended to be a temporary resettlement area for people seeking work in nearby Swakopmund while waiting on subsidized housing. The camp has since grown into a permanent community of tens of thousands with no formal infrastructure for electricity or sanitation.

Indeed, proper sanitation keeps water and food free from contamination, children in school and people healthy and safe from danger. But attempts to provide adequate sanitation have yet to yield significant results in Namibia.

This report was produced in collaboration with the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), a nonprofit organization that brings together investigative reporters, visual storytellers and data scientists to investigate key global issues affecting underserved communities.  This report was supported by the Pulitzer Center

Editorial: Yaffa Fredrick, Ajibola Amzat
Data: Sotiris Sidieris, Yuxi Wang
Design and visuals: Jillian Dudziak and Scott Lewis

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