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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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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