Community Plumbing Challenge: not just fixing toilets, but changing lives

By Fiona Ingham

After months of preparation, international and local teams descended on Diepsloot to take part in the Community Plumbing Challenge.

Life in Diepsloot township is hard, where raw sewage oozes past tiny homes; the stench of it rising as it mixes with the trash. In Diepsloot Extension 1, on average 13–40 mostly poor households share one toilet, tap, and drain. Community Plumbing Challenge2016 was held here to raise awareness and to improve living conditions.

With 2.4 billion of the world’s population lacking access to basic sanitation, the challenge cannot be tackled globally. Hence, the Community Plumbing Challenge (CPC), along with basic plumbing systems assisting in providing access to water and effective sanitation, was initiated to improve the health and the wellbeing of those living in these communities.

The CPC provides the global plumbing industry with a significant contribution to the sustainability of these communities and adheres to the UN/WHO Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which follow on from the Millennium Development Goals. The key ones for us are ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, as well as making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable for good health and wellbeing.

Many residents of the township, which lies north of the affluent suburb of Dainfern in Johannesburg, resort to using the scrubby open fields to ‘do their business’, where they may be vulnerable to being attacked. According to the Social Justice Coalition “no-one should have to fear assault, rape, or murder while going to the toilet, yet this is an everyday reality for South Africa’s poor.”

The health problems in the township have been described in the media as a ‘ticking time bomb’. In December last year, a local two-year-old died tragically after stealing away from his grandfather’s care and drinking sewage water.  

Plumbers for social change

Enter the CPC, which ran from 9 to 15 July 2016, and where the run up and the groundwork for the programme were covered in previous editions of Plumbing Africa. On Saturday 9 July, Plumbing Africa was there to join the community in welcoming the international teams as they arrived in Diepsloot for the first time. 

“You are not here to fix toilets,” said Healthabitat programme manager Dave Donald at the opening, which was held at the Father Louis Blondel Youth Centre in Diepsloot. “You are here to improve the health of the 1 200 people who will be using the toilets.”

Healthabitat is an Australian NGO that focuses on the health of poor people by improving their housing and their living environments. Local teams from the Water, Amenities and Sanitation Services Upgrading Programme (Wassup) and the Diepsloot Arts and Culture Network (DACN) hosted the CPC programme. The youth centre — operated by the Wot-if? Trust — was assigned as the designated hub and team base for the duration of the event. Teams from Australia, India, the US, and South Africa collaborated towards upgrading the toilet cubicles that have been removed from Diepsloot, with the aim of reinstalling and testing them in the months that follow. The International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), in association with the World Plumbing Council, are among the major funders.

“Forging links between the local residents and the international partners is crucial,” says Seán Kearney, international project manager with the IAPMO Group. “We’ve tried to connect local groups such as Wassup and the Plumbing Academy (Soweto) with global organisations such as Autodesk, to increase exposure and to raise the profile of the project,” he says. It was also critical to collaborate with the DACN to direct communications around broader, public health-related ideas, in addition to information about what the CPC is trying to achieve among local residents, Kearney explains. 

Diepsloot vibe

After an enthusiastic welcome from the community, each team visited their sites. The township might be an overcrowded slum heaving with 200 000 residents, but it also has an incredible buzz with friendly inhabitants. “I love living in Diepsloot,” said a woman jiggling a child on her hip. Her other children giggled shyly and waved. On Saturday, everyone seemed to be out in the streets, trading or cooking chicken on street corners, walking with friends, or relaxing in groups and drinking beer. “The sights, the sounds, and the smells in Diepsloot are incredible. I have never seen anything like this before,” says Kearney. Leader of the Indian team, Subhash Deshpande, says he was moved by the welcome and the response of the locals when they heard about the initiative. “They offered to do anything to help.”

The underground system and the water infrastructure belong to Johannesburg Water and is their responsibility to maintain. Director of non-governmental organisation Sticky Situations and facilitator for the CPC event, Jennifer van den Bussche explains, “The top structures belong to the Department of Housing, which is not maintained because there is no funding. What Sticky Situations has been doing since 2010 is to source funding to maintain and repair systems. The materials that have been provided, the pans, cisterns, and pipes are not designed for high usage. These toilets are used up to 400 times a day and they break very quickly after having been installed.”

Van den Bussche explains that IAPMO and Healthabitat are helping by introducing good quality plumbing skills and linking the right suppliers with the right products. “Again, most issues are about simple repairs and maintenance.”

Team designs

Fourteen defunct cubicles across seven sites in Diepsloot were removed in preparation for the CPC. Each team was given an old system from the township, which they had to renovate and reinstall. They then created a design for an assigned pair of toilet units, using a wide range of ideas with various approaches to common issues, such as access to clean drinking water, secure door systems, safe toilets, and accessible water resources for a variety of uses. An integral concept of the design brief is to explore all the building material options to establish which is the most robust.

The South African team built a door comprising part metal, part corrugated plastic to allow natural light to enter. The local team also used the Wash-o-flush, which is manufactured from an extruded plastic. Team Australia focused on a new floor drainage solution, door security, and a simple-to-implement plumbing solution. Team US explored a modular design approach that allows the toilet and the cistern assembly to be easily moved off site for ease of repair. A secure cover plate for the plumbing components to reduce the risk of tampering to the cistern was Team India’s innovation. This team also designed a dedicated hand wash area outside with a larger drainage area. “Our tap is also of the lift type so that as soon as you release it, the water stops,” says Deshpande. The four teams produced one ‘freestyle’ toilet design of their own, after which the entire group was combined to learn from one another and to settle on a collaborative design solution that capitalises on the best aspects of each individual approach.

“I am impressed by South Africa’s idea of using grey water flushing,” says Deshpande. Deshpande says he thinks the US design, which was designed so that it can be assembled in only two pieces, is a novel idea. The Indian team installation has three taps, allowing three people to draw water at the same time, rather than having to wait their turn. The taps are at different heights, for filling buckets, washing clothes or hands. “The Australian team used an amazing mural, which makes the toilet look attractive,” he says. 

“The reason the international teams are made up of young people, is so they can communicate with other young people locally to transfer knowledge, information, and skills. One of the key learning objectives of the CPC is the teamwork required, where individual country representatives must work with a tradesperson and a designer. This is because often in our societies, we lose that,” says secretariat of the Switzerland-based World Plumbing Council, Stuart Henry, who attended the CPC. “An engineer or an architect does the design and the plumber does all the work on site, but issues arise when the engineer often doesn’t get the desired outcome. This is why this kind of interaction is so useful.”

“Part of the reason we have the CPC is to change attitudes in communities and to develop an appreciation of the value plumbing adds to the health of communities. It doesn’t matter at what level that community is — whether it is a sophisticated, well-developed city, or a place like Diepsloot,” says Henry.

According to Donald, so far the initiative has given 1 200 Diepsloot residents access to working toilets and allows 56 000 litres of water to be saved every day. “The simple task of the maintenance of broken toilets and pipes would be far less than the cost of the water lost,” Henry observes.

Bringing technology into development

As the international teams worked on the physical construction, a team of Autodesk ‘Student Experts’ worked alongside the designers from the international teams to bring a variety of ideas to life, using Fusion 360. The 14-strong Fusion Design Hub was assigned across the four international teams to ensure that each design was conceptualised, says AutodeskEducation global strategic partnerships manager,Matthew Bell.

Autodesk partner, Modena, provided intensive Fusion 360 training to the students, where they had one week in which to build their designs. The designers were then divided into groups to model the toilet designs of the international teams. “We trained some Diepsloot youth to work alongside the university students so that they can bring their own thoughts into the design process,” says Bell. “In India, we worked with students already working in design and engineering, but in South Africa we brought in members of the local community, to ensure we leave a stronger legacy. What is so interesting is that after we’ve trained the locals, they come up with solutions to problems that we haven’t even considered.”

“I love design. My CAD skills have been improved a lot and now I am a bit more comfortable with the software. Fusion 360 enables you to be more innovative. It makes everything easier and I found it took me only two days to learn. I have designed a water filter to be attached to a hose, which can be inserted into a tap to clean the water,” says Fusion Design Hub member Abel Moedi, aged 20.

Bell explains that the team also scanned nearby streets using 3D software so they have an understanding of how the township looked before and after the new toilets were installed. “We are then able to bring the designs into the software package, and we can see where all the toilets are. We can potentially map where the drainage systems are, all in three dimensions,” he says.

“We are creating a virtual Diepsloot, and we are embedding the designs. The monitoring systems we have built into the toilets can potentially be linked into this 3D model, so we can observe water usage and quite quickly see if there are any leaks,” says Bell.

To be able to replicate everything through drone technology and scanning makes the data particularly accurate, says Bell. “With the scan we now have of Diepsloot, we can move roads, lay pipes, and adjust everything from this 3D model. We have also developed a design curriculum for this initiative, and we want people from all over the world to be able to collaborate on new design solutions. We want students from Japan, the US, the UK, and all over world to work together on solutions.”

Bigger possibilities

The potential for the project is evident, and that it can be embraced by larger organisations, such as the WHO, is apparent. Through their hosting and directing of the CPC, Wassuphas now secured the upgrade of a further 75 toilets in Diepsloot Extension 1 with local water supplier Johannesburg Water.

Henry explains that the CPC programme is continuing to grow with the involvement of more international partners. As the structure and the potential of individual challenges develop, so more backing will be needed. He says the initiative needs to form relationships with other major organisations that are already spending large amounts of money in this field. “The CPC has the potential to grow, and rather than having four teams, we could be having 40 from any one country participating in this programme in future. When you look at some of the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals, such as eliminating open defecation by 2030, we desperately need this sort of programme.”

In South Africa, it is the fate of local initiatives such as Wassupto muddle along on a shoestring for years and even decades. What is vital, is for the extraordinary work done by all CPC partners to continue being promoted by this project, so that it is not only noticed by government and the Department of Water and Sanitation, but that practical action is taken to make a larger impact after the excitement over the challenge has faded.

Plumbing Africa will be covering other aspects of the CPC initiative in subsequent editions.

The Community Plumbing Challenge partners

The Community Plumbing Challenge is a partnership between many sectors of our industry to tackle various challenges. The idea was initiated from discussions between the World Plumbing Council, IAPMO, and the WorldSkills Foundation. It was initially known as the Water Innovation Challenge, which was showcased at the Singapore International Water Week with teams of four from Australia and the US tasked with designing and demonstrating models for use in villages in Nepal and Bangladesh, with the guidance of Paul Pholeros from HealthHabitat.

This project also introduced Autodesk and our colleagues from Singapore as integral partners. This project has evolved to become the Community Plumbing Challenge, with the first live project being a school in Nashik, India.

The partnership increased to include individual members of the World Plumbing Council, with several from the US as direct supporters and sponsors of their team. A couple of supporters from Australia, including initially RMIT University, PICAC, and other manufacturers, sponsored the Australian team. The Indian Plumbing Association was instrumental in getting their team together, facilitating the work at School No. 125 in Nashik, and supporting and sponsoring their team to get to Diepsloot. Similarly, a team that participated in India was from the Basque Country and was supported by their industry.

The South African team was supported by industry through IOPSA. Essentially, each country relies on their plumbing industry organisation or organisations to select the team and to raise the funds — generally through sponsorship — to cover costs.

Since Nashik, IAPMO has stepped up dramatically to fund the support mechanisms, such as the project management and co-ordination of the challenge. They will continue to do so with existing global partners and with community groups such as Wassup, the Wot-if? Trust, and the Plumbing Academy. These community groups are an essential part of the formula in ensuring sustainability at local level.







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