Toilet Revolution
A man leaves after using the toilette in a trash covered the lagoon in the north of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Getty Images)
August 5th, 2011
05:00 PM ET

Toilet Revolution

By Mariya Karimjee, Global Post

Last month, Microsoft mogul-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates announced that he wanted to reinvent the toilet. But what was wrong with the old toilet?

For starters, argued Gates, 40 percent of the world doesn't have have access to one. And the water closet most people in developed countries use today is far too wasteful. According to Wateraid, 1.8 million children under the age of five die each year because of waterborne diseases — all preventable — that are caused by contact with feces. Even in places where people have access to latrines, human excrement is being dumped into rivers and streams so that everyone downstream is affected.

Thus, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wanted to offer financial incentives for universities to devise a new type of toilet: One that could stand alone and function in areas without water and electricity.

Read: Bill Gates Reinvents Toilets

The initiative, which will receive $42 million in funds, is supported by German taxpayers who will contribute $10 million to the project.
Some ideas already in progress include creating dry toilets that don't use water to flush, a toilet that uses bacteria to turn waste into compost and one that uses human urine in powder form as a nitrogenous fertilizer.

GlobalPost spoke with Lisa Schechtman, WaterAid’s US Head of Policy and Advocacy about the "toilet revolution," and compiled a history of the W.C. most of us use today.

A new toilet? Why? What's wrong with the old one?

Currently 2.6 billion people in the world live without adequate sanitation, i.e. a safe and clean toilet. This is nearly 40% of the world’s population. The result is that every day, more than 4,000 children under five years of age die from diarrheal diseases that could be prevented by safe water and sanitation. The Gates Foundation recognizes unsafe sanitation as a leading cause of child mortality so is investing in solutions to expand access to sanitation to those in need.

A tweet by the Gates Foundation claims there are "40,000 germs per square inch on the public toilet handle." Is this one of the leading causes of diarrheal diseases, a contributor to the 2.2 billion people that die each year.

Diarrheal diseases kill 1.8 million people a year, of which 88% is attributed to unsafe water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene practices such as a lack of regular handwashing.

WaterAid has been working in water sanitation and safety for a while now. What has your approach been?

Toilets are a major focus of all our programs. WaterAid works in 26 of the world’s poorest countries, helping communities to gain access to safe water and sanitation and to improve their hygiene practices. Our sanitation programs involve raising awareness of the importance of using toilets and helping communities to design, build and manage low-cost toilets that are affordable and appropriate to the local context. Part of ensuring that toilets are built for the people who are using them, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach, is considering all the various needs of those people when constructing sanitation facilities. For example, including lighting helps make women and girls feel safer using the facilities.

Read: Interview with WaterAid on clean drinking water

Vincent Casey, of WaterAid, said that there was no "silver bullet" to fixing the current water sanitation problems. This seems an awful lot like trying to create one. Will it be effective?

When Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program, announced the launch of the foundation’s new sanitation strategy at AfricaSan in Rwanda, she herself acknowledged there is no silver bullet when it comes to sanitation. We at WaterAid agree with the following point from the foundation’s announcement and think this approach, particularly the emphasis on full community participation, is key to the success of sanitation programs: “Addressing the needs of the 2.6 billion people who don’t have access to safe sanitation requires hygienic, affordable, and sustainable ways to capture, treat, and recycle human waste. Most importantly, it requires close collaboration with local communities to develop lasting sanitation solutions that meet their needs.”

Why not spend the $42 million on existing fixes?

The Gates Foundation is investing $3 million in the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge, as part of a wider investment of $42 million in sanitation, which includes spending on existing fixes.

A vital concern with sanitation programming is to ensure solutions are sustainable. Many sanitation investments over the years have failed because communities have not understood the links between poor sanitation and disease, so haven’t wanted to build toilets, or haven’t used finished ones. There are many examples of new toilets being used as storerooms or being reserved for use just by guests.

Another reason for failure is a lack of consideration for maintenance and upkeep – if they are not built well, pit toilets can collapse. If there are no plans for how to empty latrines, residents can end up emptying raw sewage into areas of the community that don't have sanitation infrastructure, undermining the point of having a toilet in the first place.

Therefore, many existing approaches to sanitation have not been optimal and there is a need to continue to develop approaches to improve effectiveness and sustainability. At WaterAid we often pilot new approaches to sanitation, and refine and adapt our approach based on what works best. We tend to find that no one solution fits all, and that it is always important to adapt approaches to local context.

This is why we are so committed to working with communities, to ensure projects are designed in the way that makes most sense for the people who will be using them. We welcome innovation and welcome an increased focus on sanitation, a basic service that is so vital for health and dignity yet is currently denied to such a large percentage of the world’s people.

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Topics: Development

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soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Michelle G

    If germs on the flush handle are a problem then why notmjust put the flush as a peddle on the ground, no hands involved?

    August 5, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  2. Bob in Texas

    Why spend all that money. Just use the existing design for a composting toilet. They've been in use for over one hundred years and consume only peat moss. I have a friend that use one made from an empty 55 gal. drum.

    August 7, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply

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