Hundreds of Millions Lack Decent Bathrooms. Here's One Bold Attempt at a Solution.

A TV documentary highlights the critical problem of poor sanitation in the developing world and presents some potential solutions.

Of all the things we take for granted amid our comfortable lifestyle, sanitation is possibly the biggest. This could not be more clearly illustrated than in a Netflix documentary, Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, a three-part profile of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in his role with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It’s fascinating getting to know Gates and his genius. For example, he reads about 150 pages per hour with 90% comprehension — amazing to someone like me, a fairly slow reader whose comprehension and retention have never been great.

But the reason for those in the water industry to view this documentary’s first segment is the way it illuminates the global situation around toilets and the management of human waste. In many parts of the world, people not only lack wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure, they lack anything like a decent place to go to the bathroom.

Deplorable conditions

The documentary graphically illustrates the vile dug latrines that millions if not billions of people in poor countries use every day. And once those latrines fill up, there is no place to take the waste, let alone treat it. Much of it ends up in the rivers, creating horrific pollution in places where access to clean drinking water is also a major problem.

The Gates Foundation advertises itself as “impatient optimists working to reduce inequity.” Its Global Development Program addresses issues, such as agricultural development and financial services, that affect the world’s poorest people but that do not receive adequate attention. This side of the foundation took on the challenge of improving sanitary facilities in developing countries.

One astounding fact that came to light in the documentary: In the poorest countries, there is basically no chance of building wastewater infrastructure as we know it. The cost is prohibitive, and so are the logistics of digging trenches and running pipes through teeming and chaotic communities. Therefore, since indoor plumbing is nonexistent, people are left with the latrines. A simple appliance like a decent toilet is a wish too far.

Act of reinvention

Taking its typical approach, the Gates Foundation engaged with partners in a Reinvent the Toilet Challenge covering China, India and other countries. The aim was to generate new approaches to toilet technology that are able to manage waste safely and effectively.

The vision was for the reinvented toilets to be suited for installation anywhere, including crowded urban areas and in regions prone to flooding or lacking in land and water resources and funds. Grants were awarded to researchers around the world to use basic engineering processes in innovative ways to create the new technologies.

To be practical in disadvantaged communities, the new toilets would need to remove pathogens from human waste and recover resources such as energy, clean water and nutrients. They would need to operate off the grid, unconnected to water, sewer or electricity, and they would have to cost less than 5 cents per user per day.

Inspiring outcomes

In the inaugural challenge, the California Institute of Technology received first prize for a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity. Loughborough University in the U.K. won second place for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals and clean water. The University of Toronto won third place for a toilet that sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water.

The second round of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge led to the development of:

A prototype toilet that removes water from waste and vaporizes it with a hand-operated vacuum pump and a membrane system; solids are made into fuel that can also be a fertilizer.

A self-contained toilet system that disinfects liquid waste and turns solid waste into fuel or electricity in a biomass-to-energy conversion unit.

A toilet that uses sunlight focused with a solar dish and concentrator to disinfect waste and produce biological charcoal (biochar) that can replace wood charcoal or chemical fertilizers.

Gates notes that all challenge participants were “united by a common desire to create a better world … where no child dies needlessly from a lack of safe sanitation and where all people can live healthy, dignified lives. Innovative solutions change people’s lives for the better. If we apply creative thinking to everyday challenges, such as dealing with human waste, we can fix some of the world’s toughest problems.”

It’s an idea worth remembering in the developed world as we look to new and more effective ways to manage wastewater from our communities.   


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