Caroline Knowles
6 min readDec 12, 2022


Churches, Gangs, Water and Sanitation in Lusaka and Cape Town

Caroline Knowles

On the edge of the business centre in Kuils River with its post-Apartheid government housing, now the delipidated territories of the “Sexy Boys” and other ‘gangs’ that express the desperation of youth with bullets; people in the Wesbank Township live in fortified, rigged together houses of rusting corrugated iron and wood. They live on the sandy flood plain of the Cape Flats. They live in the dust without clean water — which they buy and fetch — and without toilets — which they must improvise.

Wesbank, Capetown

3,000 km away in Lusaka, while life is calmer and less attuned to the obdurate politics of race and the unfulfilled promises of liberation, living conditions are similar. Flying toilets[i] are the norm and water is bought and carried. It can be bought from Lusaka water and sewerage company, or, because the company’s capacity is limited, from local service providers through communal water points such as kiosks or private standpipes, sometimes operated by institutions like churches and private operators that have sunk boreholes. Privately owned water sellers sometimes charge more than the city for piping water to households that can afford it. Thrilled to foster development in the community, a church Bishop in Kamulanga, on the edge of Lusaka, enthusiastically explained that if the Ward Development Committee bought a tractor they could clear up some of the (plastic) solid waste lying around blocking drainage ditches.

This is a tale of two cities — Lusaka and Cape Town — connected by deficits in basic infrastructure, and by a research project led by Virginia Bond and a team of researchers, funded by the British Academy under its Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme[i].

Focussed on water and solid waste, the research is testing the effectiveness of an approach called the Broad Brush Survey (BBS) to incorporate social factors into infrastructure design. The BBS entails interviews with local stakeholders and observation of people’s activities at significant points in their community from church and community centres to water supply outlets, rivers/drainage ditches, bridges, and informal recycling sites. Places where solid waste accumulates, gathering places, markets, transport nodes and so on. The BBS profiles existing water and sanitation provision in as little as 10 to 15 days. It answers the question — in water and sanitation terms, what sort of a place is this? Observational data are then combined with data from handheld GPS devices, to show how far people walk to access water and toilets.

A holistic picture of the informal economy of water and toilets, which no one has so far put together, is emerging from this research. The research has exposed the distribution of flushing toilets, pit latrines and septic tanks. It is the first time that toilets have been monitored using the BBS. It shows that social networks are important in who uses and maintains toilets and the terms on which they do so. BBS data reveal the hidden predominance of flying toilets and serious shortages in local authority community toilets. This data is valuable in the hands of communities petitioning for improvements. Researchers have developed a water score card based on WHO standards, which can be used to assess the risk of diseases carried by the water available in informal communities. The health risks of contaminated water — cholera, typhoid, dysentery and e-coli — are serious and can have devastating consequences on people’s wellbeing.

Infrastructure projects fail when engineered solutions don’t take people’s everyday lives and how communities actually operate, into account. Factoring in social relationships and particulars of place and incorporating community co-design and collaboration into infrastructure design reduces the risk of inappropriate provision that fails to meet local needs or as so often happens, factors essential maintenance in. The research shows that BBS works in profiling deficits and designing suitable, sustainable, low-cost improvements in water and sanitation that tangibly improve the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities, including low-income pockets in Kamulanga and Wesbank.

The BBS is a multi-purpose tool. If it works for water and sewage — and it does — it can be used in designing all kinds of interventions. The team are writing a manual on how to adapt and use it in other contexts to design better interventions in a range of services, like public health, for example.

Infrastructure interventions like these are really important. Cities in the global south are seeing the most rapid growth, overall Cape Town is expanding by 10% each year; Lusaka at 5% a year. In both cities, urban expansion is a response to poor economic conditions exacerbated by Covid-19, which plunged multitudes into poverty. In both cities, expansion is most rapid in informal (low income) communities, which are already underserved by vital infrastructures, and where displacements and demolitions are common, leaving low-income communities in a permanent state of precarity without the basic infrastructures to sustain healthy life. The BBS and community co-design is capable providing viable, sustainable, and low-cost solutions to improve people’s lives in the territories of churches and the “Sexy Boys” as well as in cities throughout the global south.

[i] When due to a lack of other options a plastic bag has to stand in as a toilet.

[ii] Virginia Bond (Zambart, Lusaka, Zambia and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London) with Erastus Mwanaumo, Taonga Chirwa, Justina Muchalenje (University of Zambia), Stephen Ford, Janet Seeley (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) Musanda Simwinga (Zambart, Lusaka), Vanessa Speight (University of Sheffield), Graeme Hoddinott, Melissa Nel and Heinz Jacobs (Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa). The project is called: A method for rapidly assessing context in urban communities to optimise health interventions: the case of water infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa. There are 4 field sites, two in Lusaka, Zambia, Chaisa and Kamulanga and two in Cape Town, South Africa, Wards 16 (Eerste River) and 19 (Kuils River). These communities were chosen because they have different kinds of water infrastructures.

Caroline Knowles is the Director of the British Academy’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme and a Global Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. An urban Sociologist with research experience in a number of cities, she is the author of many books and papers, most recently, Flip-Flop: A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads, published by Pluto Press (2014 & 2015) and Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, published by Penguin (2022)