SA’s water and sanitation crisis: A silent threat to education

According to the United Nations, approximately 4.2 million people in South Africa lack safe drinking water. Picture: Dii Nyau/Pexels

According to the United Nations, approximately 4.2 million people in South Africa lack safe drinking water. Picture: Dii Nyau/Pexels

Published Jun 25, 2024


South Africa, a nation of remarkable beauty and potential, faces a pressing crisis — one that silently, yet profoundly, undermines the educational prospects and overall well-being of millions of its people.

The nation is home to about 60 million people and is known for its diverse economy and abundant natural resources. Yet, it faces significant problems with its water and sanitation systems.

One of the biggest challenges is that many people, especially in rural areas and informal settlements, do not have access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation facilities. This lack of basic needs deeply impacts the well-being and education of many South Africans.

For children in these areas, going to school means facing health risks from unsafe water and poor sanitation. These conditions can lead to various illnesses, making it hard for learners to attend school regularly and to focus on their studies.

At least 25% of schools lack reliable water supply. Picture: Nabi Söhrablı/Pexels

According to the United Nations, approximately 4.2 million people in South Africa lack safe drinking water. In addition, 21 million people do not have access to basic sanitation facilities. These issues have significant implications for public health and economic development.

With close to 10% of schools dependent on hazardous pit toilets, 25% of schools lacking reliable water supply and millions of families enduring inadequate access to clean water and proper sanitation, the repercussions are both immediate and far-reaching.

As the adage goes: “If you want to go far, go together.”

Indeed, the collective effort to rectify these deficiencies can propel the nation towards a future where all children thrive.

The problem: Unsafe toilet facilities and water scarcity.

Nearly one in 10 South African schools rely on unsafe pit toilets, subjecting learners to dangerous and unsanitary conditions. The tragic death of 5-year-old Lumka Mkhethwa, who fell into a pit latrine at her school in 2018, underscores the severe risk and indignity children face.

In 2022, “GroundUp,” a not-for-profit news agency, visited five schools in Limpopo to check if their toilet systems had improved following the tragic death of 5-year-old Micheal Komape, who died in January 2014 when he fell into a dilapidated pit toilet at his school in a rural part of the province.

They found that many of these schools still use outdated latrines and rented mobile toilets. Disturbingly, investigators also found faeces and urine on the seats and floors of the stalls.

These toilets not only endanger lives, but also severely hamper learners’ dignity and desire to attend school. Poor sanitation is linked to the spread of diseases like cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. Contaminated water sources from inadequate sanitation facilities often contribute to these outbreaks.

Unreliable water supply

For 25% of schools that lack a reliable water supply, maintaining basic hygiene and a good learning environment is a daily struggle. At Bethel Junior Secondary School in rural Matatiele, learners were once asked to bring water bottles to school to help them learn more effectively.

The school relies on rainwater to fill its two water tanks and doesn't have enough water for all its learners. To save water, learners and teachers have been bringing their own water bottles to school for drinking purposes.

Wider societal impact

Health: Water-borne diseases like cholera and dysentery proliferate in environments lacking clean water and decent sanitation. Statistics indicate that over 12 million South Africans endure life without proper toilets, leading to alarming rates of preventable diseases. Children, with their developing immune systems, are particularly vulnerable.

Education: The lack of facilities severely disrupts education. According to the Department of Basic Education, schools without water reported higher absenteeism rates. For girls, inadequate sanitation can mean missing school during menstruation, ultimately affecting their academic performance and future opportunities.

Actionable solutions

Develop infrastructure

Investment in modern sanitation facilities and reliable water infrastructure is crucial. Organisations like WaterAid advocate for multi-stakeholder cooperation to fund and maintain these projects.

Governmental initiatives should prioritise the installation of safe, hygienic toilets, and consistent water supplies in schools.

Community engagement

Empower local communities with knowledge about hygiene practices and the importance of maintaining clean water and sanitation facilities.

Community-led committees can oversee hygiene education and infrastructure maintenance, ensuring sustainability.

Collaboration with the private sector

Companies like Baby Soft, which are dedicated to improving sanitation, should be encouraged to participate in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

By aligning with organisations like WaterAid, Baby Soft, the private sector can contribute to building a robust infrastructure for water and sanitation.

The challenge of inadequate water and sanitation facilities in South African schools is immense, yet conquerable. Clean water and decent sanitation are not mere amenities but fundamental human rights.

As Baby Soft’s message states: “If you want to go far, go together.”

Clean water and sanitation is a basic human right that millions of South Africans don't have access to.

Together, we can change the lives of schoolchildren and families by providing clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene. This initiative is in line with WaterAid’s vision that by working together, we can reach everyone, everywhere with clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene.

Choose Baby Soft today because change is only possible together.