ACCEPTING THE CHALLENGE: According to UNICEF, 2.6 billion people, almost entirely in the developing world, use bucket, public or open (uncovered) latrines, if they use latrines at all. Image: Courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Chances are that if you are reading this, you have a private flush toilet a few steps from your bed. Your commode is more reliable than your mobile connection, and likely will outlast all of your home appliances. Yet huge tracts of the developing world have yet to see so much as a latrine, a situation that facilitates the spread of debilitating or even deadly diarrheal diseases.
Advocates for universal access to and use of basic personal sanitation hope their efforts will get a big boost in August, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation present several hygienic innovations developed through its Reinventing the Toilet Challenge. Technology alone might help with failing sewers in industrialized countries, but for poor nations, where changing social norms is more important, the Gates Foundation is a powerful ally. The foundation's involvement could do for sanitation what it has accomplished in the battle to eradicate malaria—raise the visibility of a fundamental health care crisis and encourage new efforts to end it.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 2.6 billion people, almost entirely in the developing world, use bucket, public or open (uncovered) latrines—if they use latrines at all. Of that total, 1.1 billion people defecate in the open—a social norm in some societies, but one that results in typhoid, cholera, dysentery and other diseases.
One of the foundation's efforts in this fight was to spread $3 million in grants last summer among engineering teams at eight research institutions in North America, Asia, Africa and Europe, including the California Institute of Technology, South Africa's University of KwaZulu–Natal and National University of Singapore. The foundation approached about 20 institutions, eight of which took up the challenge. These teams were charged with developing concepts that: do not use piped-in water; are not connected to a sewer system; do not use outside electricity; and will not cost more than 5 cents per visitor per day to operate, including initial investment and ongoing maintenance.
Several prototypes have been proposed: A team at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands proposes using microwaves to turn human waste into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which would be stored in solid-oxide fuel stacks to generate electricity. Teams at Loughborough University in England and Stanford University are working separately on methods that involve turning waste into charcoal, or biochar.
At the University of Toronto, researchers are building a system that sanitizes feces (dehydrated after running it between two rollers) by smoldering it. The system decontaminates urine via membrane filtration and ultraviolet radiation. Meanwhile, Caltech researchers have proposed a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen for fuel cells from the waste.
Frank Rijsberman, director of the Gates Foundation's Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Initiative, says he is hoping for something that goes beyond the minimum criteria to become the "iPad of sanitation." He says, "There must be an aspirational element" to toilets or even latrines if they are going to become the norm. People have to want to be seen owning one.
This last point is more important than one might think. After all, what arguments for toilets could be more persuasive than hygiene and health? The numbers alone would seem capable of convincing any adult mind that open defecation is disastrous. For instance, the World Health Organization says 1.5 million children alone suffer miserable deaths each year from diarrhea, a common outcome of poor sanitation. It turns out, however, that getting people to climb the first rung of what is called the sanitation ladder to improved waste-disposal practices is a complex social endeavor.
For example, although some people, particularly women and girls who risk being assaulted while crouching alone at night in the open, might opt for latrines and toilets where available, others say they prefer the experience of open defecation. To them, it is a natural practice going back generations.
Nonprofits and government agencies trying to end open defecation historically have parachuted into villages armed with health statistics, subsidies and latrines. Those involved in the battle say such campaigns are viewed locally as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, as condescending noblesse oblige. Return visits revealed that if the facilities were used at all, they became grain stores, animal pens or even kitchens.
Even the Gates Foundation, Rijsberman says, is putting more money into toilet technology than behavioral efforts, but it recognizes the limits of technology in changing social norms. He says the foundation has also issued grants for "sanitation marketing programs" in Indonesia, India and Tanzania, for example.