Cheap versus clean: How urban dwellers of Ashaiman share the few toilets available in town

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While the world’s attention is on Sochi’s shared toilets, there are still 2.6 billion people worldwide without access to improved sanitation facilities. With a globally growing urban population, shared sanitation seems to be a pragmatic way of increasing coverage except for the fact that the JMP (Joint Monitoring Programme) does not consider such facilities as “improved”. Practitioners, academics, and governments have been working for quite a few years on defining new criteria for shared toilets that would allow them to qualify as “improved”.  Meanwhile and in the real world, 70% Ghana’s urban population uses a form of shared toilet (neighbour’s, commercial and/or publically managed toilet blocks).

My recently completed PhD research investigates the implementation and use of shared toilets in Ashaiman, a fast growing city in Ghana. It takes an in-depth look at how users compare, value and select the different models of shared sanitation they have access to.

A fast growing city with few toilets

A bucket toilet ban, high housing density, high occupancy rates (often more than 10 families in a compound house), deficient urban planning, and the absence of a sewerage system are some of the reasons explaining the low rate of in-house toilets in large Ghanaian cities such as Ashaiman. Of the 432 house units (in the research, a house unit is a collection of dwellings occupying a single plot. In Ashaiman, a house unit can be a compound house, a self-contained house, or a container. A compound house can be home to more than 15 households) surveyed in this research - representing over 8,000 residents - only 51 had at least one toilet. The remaining 92% unlucky ones did not, but instead had to rely on an informal network of shared toilets. These toilets are now the norm, and represent the emerging categories of urban sanitation in Ghana. They come in different shapes and forms, with different levels of access, price, ownership, management systems and level of comfort and cleanliness.

Participatory methods: mapping and ranking

One aspect of the recently completed PhD research was to identify the key determinants used by dwellers to select their shared toilets. Focusing on areas where different models were available at reasonable walking distance, over one hundred participants were asked to first map their use of toilets and then rank these toilets through semantic differential scale.
An analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was applied to compare the use of the toilets with the ranking of determinants in order to know which elements were most important in the selection process.

Pyramid of determinants

The two most common shared toilet models in the surveyed areas, the municipally and privately-run toilet blocks were obviously at the end of the cleanliness and affordability continuum. If we oversimplify and overlook some underlying truths, the daily dilemma for Ashaiman’s dwellers is between relief in either cheap and dirty toilets or clean and expensive ones.

Price

Forty percent of the surveyed persons do not make the cheapest toilet their first choice. While affordability is an essential determinant, users are not always ready to use the cheapest option; the cheapest toilet may be too far, too dirty or too busy,

Cleanliness

Many studies present ‘cleanliness’ as a central determinant, the reason users would prefer one shared toilet over another (Biran, A., Jenkins, M.W., Dabrase, P., & Bhagwat, I. (2011). Patterns and determinants of communal latrine usage in urban poverty pockets in Bhopal, India. Tropical Medicine and International Health. and Schouten, M., & Mathenge, R. (2010)). Communal sanitation alternatives for slums: a case study of Kibera, Kenya,. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth). In both the participatory groups and individual interviews, it also appears to be one of the central determinants for the study’s target population; overall users value commercial toilets more because they are clean and regularly maintained. However, preference does not translate to usage. Many will queue in front of old, large and poorly maintained toilet blocks because they simply cannot afford their preferred choice.

Cleanliness vs Price

Of the shared toilet options available in Ashaiman, the key determinants of cleanliness and affordability are often mutually exclusive. None are totally satisfactory for most residents, there are no perfect models. This is a daily dilemma residents face, compromise on cleanliness or affordability? The level of cleanliness and affordability they accept and eventually use is relative, depending on the availability options and their constraints at the moment of need.

Dynamic Toilet Selection

This dilemma results in dynamic variations in shared toilet use within a neighbourhood and even within a particular household over time. When conditions in certain facilities change or when new facilities are built, Ashaiman dwellers aren’t loyal to or held back by social alliances to one toilet or another, they are opportunists, looking for facilities that best balance their cleanliness-affordability preferences. A new cheaper toilet? Their current preferred toilet isn’t getting cleaned enough? Change the toilet!

Adrien Mazeau is an independent urban and sanitation consultant.

Date: 11 February 2014
Contributors: 
Country: 
Ghana