Improving sanitation in Kenya: toilets have become an obsession

Brian McSorely Water


In Kenya a child dies every 17 minutes of a preventable disease caused by diarrhoea. Brian McSorley, WASH Coordinator, is passionate about providing clean water and sanitation, here he explains what this involves in Oxfam’s Kenya programme.

I spend a lot of my time looking into toilets. Some people have suggested toilets have become an obsession of mine. It is slightly bizarre in sanitation meetings when you look around at straight-faced people who talk earnestly about faeces and discuss the clearance between the toilet seat and divider that separates the solid and liquid waste.

Sanitation is just one element of my work, I also work on responding to the needs of refugees in camps and looking at water supplies in arid and semi-arid areas. I went into this area of work thinking about how to provide safe water for people and didn’t have any interest in sanitation, but it grew as I saw what a huge problem it is. Increased migration from rural to urban areas and a rise in people living in slums will put pressure on an already difficult situation.

It was a hidden problem that no one was talking about.

Six years ago, we launched a pilot project to develop a household toilet for residents living in slums. There are no sewers, and complex land issues and a lack of space conspire to prevent the majority of slum dwellers from having access to a toilet near their homes. This presents major public health problems with waste dumped in walkways and gutters in the slums. In Kenya a child dies every 17 minutes of a preventable disease caused by diarrhoea. There are also safety concerns for women and children using public toilets as there’s a lot of crime at night.

Our solution was a portable toilet that sits in the corner of the house, similar to a camping toilet but without the chemicals, and affordable for poor households. A few prototypes were made, but we faced problems like the smell and the stigma of carrying a portable toilet to empty. We then produced a toilet where the solid and liquid waste is separated into smaller containers. This gets rid of the smell and the smaller containers are easier to empty. I was motivated to work on this project because it was a hidden problem that no one was talking about.

One of the best parts of my job is seeing people’s reactions. I remember one of the first Kenyan villages I visited in Turkana where the water source was several kilometres from village and they were using diesel to pump water. The generator kept breaking down, pipes burst and there was an intermittent water supply.

Due to the high costs of pumping and reliability issues we had never really found a durable solution, but advances in solar pumping over the past decade allowed us to install a new system. When I visited last year, the village had more water than ever before – a good example of a sustainable solution for the thousands of people in that village.

It is something many of us take for granted, being able to use a loo, but when you understand the complexities, you realise that a lack of safe toilets is going to get worse for millions of people before it gets better.

First published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation  as part of a series about humanitarians ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit.

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Victor Ondieki, 10, walks past a Sanergy Fresh Life toilet as he arrives at the Jaombi Foundation School in Mukuru informal settlement, in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 27, 2014
Oxfam partner Sanergy has installed Fresh Life toilets at the school, which replace unsanitary pit latrines. Schools with Fresh Life toilets in Mukuru have seen dramatically increased attendance, particularly of female students. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Author: Brian McSorley
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.