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Challenges of sludge management in informal settlements

..manual pit emptying in Korogocho

By Doreen Mbalo 

The working conditions that manual toilet emptiers face on a daily basis in the informal settlements are very dangerous as shown by observations made at Korogocho slums. Although the emptiers are aware and understand the risks involved in handling faecal sludge without the right protective equipment, all of them empty toilets without observing any health and hygiene standards stipulated by the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation and the Ministry of Labour. The reason quoted was that they are not able to afford the protective equipment required. Untreated faecal sludge however contains pathogens that can cause diseases and remain active for a long period of time. There is an urgent need to improve the working conditions of emptiers through regulation and making their work human by conforming to the basic health and hygiene standards. The rights of emptiers are violated as per Article 43 of the Constitution of Kenya with regards to attainable standards of health.

On 8th of March 2012, I had the opportunity to visit manual pit emptiers in Korogocho slums to see how they carry out their job. The waste is removed with a tin attached to a rope and poured into a plastic container (See Picture 1). It is then transferred into a drum that is placed on a makeshift handcart (See Picture 2). The collected waste is then transported and disposed off in Nairobi River (See Picture 3). 

Another major concern with their method of emptying is the serious pollution of both surface and ground water. By emptying this faecal sludge directly into Nairobi River, pathogens for diseases like Cholera and Typhoid are spread at a rapid pace. These emptiers are also carriers of various diseases. This is made worse by the fact that none had undergone any vaccinations to protect them.  From observation, most looked unwell.  They had teary eyes, hoarse voices due to the toxic fumes and several cuts and bruises on their skin due to the solid waste that is found in faecal sludge. They also looked emaciated.

It is shocking to know that large amounts of faecal sludge from sanitation facilities are dumped into Nairobi River without any concerns from either NEMA or WRMA. As a result of this, all the rivers passing through informal settlements are polluted with solid waste and faecal sludge emptied from the numerous pit latrines. This situation needs to be addressed urgently e.g. by providing better localised sludge dumping sites within the informal settlements.  This could be improved further by developing decentralised waste systems like Bio-Digesters and Anaerobic Baffled Reactors.

Those involved in pit emptying are ostracized and stigmatized by their neighbours. Many emptiers indicate that they only carry out this type of work because they cannot find another job. The services offered are poorly paid (approximately Ksh. 150 for every drum of sludge emptied). There is a need to regulate these services and enforce health and hygiene standards in order to mitigate these issues. The emptiers should be properly licensed and legalised to ensure safe operation of their business. This will also ensure that the disposal of faecal sludge is controlled and done in an environmental friendly way as per the guidelines of NEMA and WRMA. Tariffs should be regulated to be in line with the requirements of the emptiers. The tariffs charged should allow them to buy the basic personal protective equipment like gumboots, gloves, masks, overalls and to ensure vaccinations.  A proper tariff will protect them from exploitation and will ensure the provision of quality services for the residents of low income settlements. 

Provision of appropriate masks is paramount for this type of job. According to 1Rodda, N.  infection through inhalation of Ascaris eggs can occur if appropriate nose masks are not worn.

Training is vital and indispensible in ensuring that the emptiers will adhere to the health and hygiene standards. Vaccinations should be a strict requirement for this job and this should be confirmed by a health certificate. They should follow basic hygiene principles like washing hands and bodies with soap after work, not smoking, drinking and eating while emptying pits.

The services that emptiers offer are essential within the provision of sanitation services in low income urban areas therefore their work cannot be abolished.  Drastic efforts need to be made to improve their work conditions. This can be done either by linking them to the water utilities or promoting them to work as service providers within the private sector. In addition, it is a job opportunity for many youths in slum areas. If approached as a business through sanitation marketing and public awareness creation and is institutionalised, it could become a sustainable business model that will ascertain dignity in the occupation.

WIN-SA (2011). What happens when the pit is full - A story of pits, PETs and managed sludges. WIN-SA Water Information Network, Gezine, South Africa. Link : http://www.susana.org

Photo documentary of manual pit emptying can be found here: http://www.flickr.com

SuSanA forum discussion about pit emptiers can be found here: http://forum.susana.org


Doreen Mbalo works in the sanitation component of the GIZ Water Sector Reform Program. She was formally an intern at GIZ in the Sustainable Sanitation-Ecosan Program in Eschborn, Germany. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.





Current Issue: Africa Water & Sanitation & Hygiene March-April 2017 Vol.12 No.2