Image credit Lloyd Alter: Broken Toilets in the Amazon
Bill and Melinda are making a big investment in " a strategy to help bring safe, clean sanitation services to millions of poor people in the developing world." The foundation notes that a billion people have to shit in the open, and billions more lack a safe, reliable toilet or latrine. Sylvia Mathews Burwell of the Global Development Program says:
No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet," Burwell said in her speech at AfricaSan, the third African Conference on Sanitation and Hygiene, organized by the African Ministers' Council on Water (AMCOW). "But it did not go far enough. It only reached one-third of the world. What we need are new approaches. New ideas. In short, we need to reinvent the toilet.
If only this were true.
In fact, for thousands of years in China and Japan, quite large populations were served quite well without toilets, and were a lot healthier than Europeans were. Kris De Decker writes:
The Chinese were as numerous as the Americans and Europeans at the time, and they had large, densely populated cities, too. The difference was that they maintained an agricultural system that was based on human "waste" as a fertilizer. Stools and urine were collected with care and discipline, and transported over sometimes considerable distances. They were mixed with other organic waste, composted and then spread across the fields.
That's killing two birds with one stone: no pollution of drinking water, and an agricultural system that could have lasted forever. In fact, it did last 4,000 years, which is considerably longer than even our most abundant resource - potassium, with 700 years of reserves - will allow.
The Gates Foundation is spreading its money in a number of different places:
Reinventing the Toilet Challenge
Totaling $3 million, this grant supports eight universities across Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America in the challenge to reinvent the toilet as a stand-alone unit without piped-in water, a sewer connection, or outside electricity--all for less than 5 cents a day.
But people have been doing this for years. The Anangu Kichwa in the Yasuni Forest of Ecuador built these "eco-toilets" after getting tired of hauling water to their government supplied western toilets that just dumped waste into a cesspool behind. Composting toilets have also become both sophisticated and cheap.
There are also technologies like the peepoo bag that Sami described as Portable, Affordable Sanitation for Everybody. Karin Ruiz, the developer of the peepoo points out the real problem: "Most toilets are part of larger infrastructural systems and dependent on complex investments and institutional changes. "
The Gates Foundation does understand that it doesn't all need to be conventional sewer systems.
The foundation and its partners are working to develop new tools and technologies that address every aspect of sanitation--from the development of waterless, hygienic toilets that do not rely on sewer connections to pit emptying to waste processing and recycling. Many of the solutions being developed involve cutting-edge technology that could turn human waste into fuel to power local communities, fertilizer to improve crops, or even safe drinking water.
But I think that a case can be made that the technologies are known and developed, and that the Chinese and Japanese demonstrated for thousands of years that what it takes is not a sophisticated plumbing system but a robust civil organization. And as we approach peak fertilizer and peak phosphorus, we should put a price on pee and on poop like we want to put on carbon. We can no longer afford to just flush the problem away.
More at the Gates Foundation
More on the History of the Bathroom
Are Flush Toilets Appropriate in Third World Countries?
The History of the Bathroom Part 1: Before the Flush
The History of the Bathroom Part 2: Awash In Water and Waste
The History of the Bathroom Part 3: Putting Plumbing Before People
History of the Bathroom Part 4: The Perils of Prefabrication
The History of the Bathroom Part 5: Alexander Kira and Designing For People, Not Plumbing