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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Unflushed toilets threaten children’s health at Langa High School

Thuletho Zwane

It is Monday afternoon and the temperature sits at a steady 35 degrees Celsius.

Langa High School is built on white sand. There is uncollected rubbish on the sand and plastic bags fly about as the wind blows. Grime covers the corridors, stairs and windows. Dust enters the mouth and settles on the back of the throat with every spoken word. Gravity pulls harder here in Langa and the sun beats one into submission.

“I had to send some children home early today because they were dehydrated. There is simply no water. There is no water to drink; no water to wash our hands. Nothing. Some of our children are forced to come to school without bathing,” says Luce-Lynn Fondling, a sports coach at the school.

Inside Education is in Langa Township, located 11 km south-east of the centre of Cape Town, to see how the water crisis has affected the students’ well-being and to investigate the impact on learning. The City of Cape Town implemented Level 6 Water Restrictions aimed at reducing water usage in preparation for Day Zero.

Fondling walks us around the school. She takes us to the second floor where the toilets became so filthy and dangerous to students’ health they had to be locked. You can smell the stench from the stairs. When we reach the second floor, we immediately use our hands to cover our mouths and noses, but the dust becomes too much to bear forcing us to cough.

“This is how you get TB [tuberculosis],” says Fondling.

A combination of old urine and faeces smell covers the whole floor. There’s grunge on the toilet walls. There is no door separating us from the latrines, but only a gate, locked to block access to the putrid lavatories.

“We’ve had to supervise how the toilets are being used. They [students] are not allowed to flush. This is not good for my girls. Can you imagine being on your period, using a toilet that can’t be flushed and then not being able to wash your hands after,” says Fondling.

The students can’t flush the toilets because there is no water to flush. This has caused a backlog on the drainage system. When the school does get a little water, it gives it to the students to drink.

The City of Cape Town is aware of these challenges. Premier Helen Zille announced plans to support schools in the event of day zero. In a statement released in January, Zille said the Western Cape Education Department tasked the Department of Transport and Public Works (DTPW) with the installation of reticulation systems to connect all tanks as well as ground water supplies to the school facilities. She said a key priority was to ensure that all schools dependent on the Western Cape Water Supply System had at least water storage facilities which would be plumbed to the reticulation system of the school. In this way, water can at least be tankered to schools to ensure fire security and basic hygiene requirements.

With regards to clearing out the drainage system Zille said a senior city engineer confirmed schools can use sea water for ablution purposes where necessary as a short-term solution.

She said the Western Cape Government would consider sea water in cases where schools cannot access borehole or recycled water for sewage purposes.

However, this has not happened for Langa High School.

Inside Education sent a list of questions to Paddy Attwell, Director of Communication at the Western Cape’s Department of Education. Attwell says the district office is aware of the maintenance issues at the school.

“Our circuit manager is investigating your claims. This includes taking photographs of the areas concerned,” he says.

Attwell says the department allocated more than R170 000 to the school for maintenance and that the toilets were deep cleaned in January 2018 and repainted.

“The school has to manage these resources while also implementing water saving measures. Our information shows the school has experienced the same water pressure issues surrounding the community, especially when the city was repairing pipes in the area,” he says.

The classes next to the abandoned toilets are still in session.

“Health-wise, this is a strain on us teachers and students. We all become uncomfortable because of the smell. The smell from the toilets but also the smell from being forced to come to school unwashed due to there being no water,” says Fondling.

There is one working tap for close to 600 students. It is located at the centre of the school. While there, we see students wash their cups and fill them with water; some students directly drink from the tap placing their mouths on the opening of the tap; others let the water run on their cusped hand and drink. Fondling tells us this is the busiest part of the school when the water is not shut.

“And this very place has been responsible for many communicable diseases,” she says.

In an interview on infectious diseases, Dr Jo Barnes of the Department of Global Health at Stellenbosch University says clean water and the safe disposal of faeces and perishable foods are needed to avoid the outbreak of waterborne diseases in any community. Barnes says the most important factors in determining outbreaks of communicable diseases are the quality and quantity of the water supply in a community, the sanitation facilities and standards, and the quality and cleanliness of food.

Four boys wait to fill one bottle of water at the tap. Their shirts are neatly tucked in. They have on their school jerseys and wear their green and yellow ties with pride. Between them they have one pink bottle filled with water. The bottle is passed from one to the other. They say that when there is no water at the school, or at home, they go to a close by water source to wash their hands. They know the water is dirty but sometimes Langa goes days without water.

“I walk to the squatter camps and there is no water. You will hear them talk of 87 litres and 50 litres but there is no water,” says Fondling.

“We are tired. My students are tired. We all sit there, with all the smells and you expect children to learn. They are tired. How do I teach Life Orientation? How do we teach Chemistry? We must also limit all movement because we are all tired and they have no energy. They are thirsty. There is no food, there is no water,” she says.

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