Africa: Inventing a Toilet for the 21st Century

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Photo: Michael Hanson/Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
California Institute of Technology in the U.S. won the 'Reinvent the Toilet' challenge for designing a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity.

Seattle — I announced the winners today of the foundation's Reinvent the Toilet Challenge--a competition designed to encourage breakthroughs in clean, affordable sanitation.

Today I attended what has to be one of the oddest summer fairs ever. A year ago, the foundation launched an initiative to tackle the problem of sanitation in the developing world. We called it the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. This week in Seattle, the foundation is holding a Reinvent the Toilet Fair, where we have brought together about 200 grantees, partners, and others who are passionate about creating safe, effective, and inexpensive sanitation services for people without access to flush toilets.

The fair brought together people from a wide range of disciplines--inventors, designers, investors, advocates, academics, and government officials--all thinking about innovative ways to solve this long-standing problem. While at the fair, I awarded prizes to three universities we challenged a year ago to come up with solutions for capturing and processing human waste and transforming it into useful resources.

The winners included: first place to California Institute of Technology in the United States for designing a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity, second place to Loughborough University in the United Kingdom for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water, and third place to University of Toronto in Canada for a toilet that sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water. A special recognition was awarded to Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) and EOOS for their outstanding design of a toilet user-interface.

Toilets are extremely important for public health, and - when you think of it - even human dignity. For most of us living in the developed world, we often don't give them much thought.

In 2009, during a trip to South Africa I met with a health expert working to improve access to sanitation for the poor people of Durban.

Most of the poor people in Durban (and elsewhere) are denied the convenience and health benefits of flush toilets because they don't have access to water.

The flush toilets we use in the wealthy world are irrelevant, impractical and impossible for 40 percent of the global population, because they often don't have access to water, and sewers, electricity, and sewage treatment systems. Worldwide, there are 2.5 billion people without access to safe sanitation--including 1 billion people who still defecate out in the open and more than 1 billion others who must use pit latrines.

Beyond a question of human dignity, this lack of access also endangers people's lives, creates an economic and a health burden for poor communities, and hurts the environment.

Food and water tainted with fecal matter causes diarrheal diseases that kill 1.5 million children every year - more than the annual deaths from AIDS and malaria combined. Chronic diarrhea can impact the development of children's minds, bodies, and immune systems. The consequences are especially stark for women and girls who are often forced to miss work or school when they are menstruating or risk assault when they have to defecate in the open or use public facilities at night.

Reinventing the Toilet

When you think about it, the flush toilet is actually a pretty outdated sanitation solution. It was certainly an important breakthrough when it was created in 1775 by a Scottish mathematician and watchmaker named Alexander Cummings. Over the decades, it led to a sanitary revolution that helped keep deadly diseases like cholera at bay, saving hundreds of millions of lives.

But the fact that four of every 10 people still don't have access to flush toilets proves that--even today--it is a solution too expensive for much of the world. And in an era where water is becoming increasingly precious, flush toilets that require 10 times more water than our daily drinking water requirement are no longer a smart or sustainable solution.

A big part of the challenge is technological. In addition to building new toilets that are affordable and sustainable, we have to develop solutions to empty these new latrines and treat the human waste. We also have to work closely with governments, businesses, and communities to stimulate demand for better sanitation, encourage investment, and create supportive public policies that will allow these innovative solutions to succeed.

Inventing new toilets is one of the most important things we can do to reduce child deaths and disease and improve people's lives. It is also something that can help wealthier countries conserve fresh water for other important purposes besides flushing.

We don't have all the answers yet, but I'm optimistic that we can and will solve this problem. I'm hopeful that this unusual summer fair will be a positive step toward that important goal.

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