Thursday, December 11, 2014

Week Thirteen: The Environment of an Informal Settlement

By: Nikala Pieroni and Harry Summers 

This past week the Environment class conducted a research project focused on environmental impacts in the informal settlement Kilimanjaro around Windhoek. The class was split into two groups, each focusing on either water and sanitation or energy use in the settlement. In order to collect the data necessary to conduct the research we walked around the settlement and interviewed a total of over forty residents using both a simple random sample and cluster research techniques. The interviews were conducted through translators who were members of the Young Achievers, a group of young adult community activists. The use of the translators presented a bit of a challenge as each translator would ask a question in a slightly different manner. This then had some effect on the response that would be given. However challenging this experience was, it was also one of the greatest exposures to the everyday struggles of many Namibians.

Walking through the informal settlements gave us an entirely new perspective on what it means to have a government fail its citizens. Person after person that we interviewed complained that the government had not done enough to ease the new residents of Windhoek into the rest of the society. There was not enough trash collection, let alone trash bins to keep the overflowing garbage from being tossed all over the settlement by the wind and the dogs. The toilets were all public toilets used by multiple houses and were usually either broken or so dirty that one was not safe to use them without being exposed to disease. There were also not enough water taps close enough to the people to be used efficiently and thus presented another hurdle the people had to overcome. For example, some residents stated that it took them close to thirty minutes to walk, collect the water, and return to their homes. This compared with the easy access we experience everyday gave us a stark new appreciation for how fortunate we have been to have something like running water. In addition to this, residents had prepaid cards that allowed them to receive water, but if their card ran out before they had all the water they needed, then they were unable to get more until the card was refiled.

We considered how these challenges around water were complicated by the scarcity of water in the country. Since Namibia is a highly arid country, it is very expensive for the government to get water to the citizens from their limited resources, so providing water to all who need it is a difficult project. The government also does not currently have the type of money required to care for all these people, but it was challenging to watch the citizens in such strenuous  circumstances and not get very angry at the government for their inability to provide. In reality, it seems that it is not the providing of more toilets and taps that people truly need, although this would definitely be beneficial to the problem short term. It is the providing of economic stability that would allow citizens to buy their own houses, which would create access to personal toilets and taps, and the stability to pay for these services. Two things currently seem to stand in the way of this for Namibia, while talking to a Namibian friend we discovered that Namibian housing prices are some of the highest in the world compared to the salaries of the people. This means that not only those who have stable long term jobs can’t afford housing, struggling families with limited pay cannot either. The second thing getting in the way are just how few jobs there are in Namibia. We have heard often that unemployment in Namibia is around 30%, and according to some citizens it is realistically around 50%, and we saw this very harsh reality in Kilimanjaro, where so many said that they were either unemployed, or not regularly employed. These people were obviously smart and capable, they were able bodied and many had sensable and articulate ideas for how to solve issues in the community. But there was simply no jobs provided in the country. Without these, the citizens had nothing to do but take care of their home, their family, and hope that something would be done to assist them in the access to healthy water and sanitation usage. 

These water and trash issues are dangerous to the health of citizens, and we are hoping that at the very least something will be done for short term solutions to making the citizens space for living at least more sanitary for the sake of lowering illness rates. This was especially a worry of ours for children who we observed doing things that could potentially be drastically harmful for their health. Children were playing in a pool of water that had been concocted by the combination of water from a leaky toilet and a leaky tap. This water was still, and filled with mold, and trash. We also observed children who were putting rusty nails and dirty piece of plastic into their mouths. It seemed that these habits might be due to the lack of activities for children there. Without money for water, there would obviously be no money for toys. We asked one of the mothers if she knew the water her son was playing in was unsafe, and she said yes, but did not do anything about it. We were worried by this, but realized that there are probably so many stresses that come from the constant maintenance of an unsolid home, and so few ways to entertain her children, that leftovers and small pools were the only ways her kids would have something to do.

This experience left us in somewhat disbelief as we were left with more questions than real answers. How could a government that had been in power for close to twenty-five years leave its people to suffer so much? There is a very prevalent need for jobs in Namibia but more specifically in Windhoek, and from what we witnessed there was plenty of work to be done to improve and build the city from the ground up. From waste management jobs such as more frequent trash pick up to construction jobs to build an enormous amount of necessary infrastructure throughout the informal settlements. During the Great Depression when America’s unemployment was at a disastrous level the government started massive infrastructure projects to both give the country’s citizens jobs but also to build the majority of the highways and bridges that still exist today. My advice to the Namibian government would be to implement a similar mass employment project. This would give the people living in the informal settlements the ability to invest in their children's education as well as improve their own standard of living, both resulting in a more prosperous country in the present and the future.

 This blog is the work of our students. To learn more about Center for Global Education programming, visit us at

No comments: