Gates foundation launches effort to reinvent the toilet

July 20, 2011 | Fracking, Hydraulic Fracturing, Water, Well

New strategy promotes adoption of safe, affordable sanitation in the developing world

KIGALI, Rwanda — The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced July 19 the launch of a strategy to help bring safe, clean sanitation services to millions of poor people in the developing world.

In a keynote address at the 2011 AfricaSan Conference in Kigali, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation’s Global Development Program, called on donors, governments, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations to address the urgent challenge, which affects nearly 40 percent of the world’s population. Flush toilets are unavailable to the vast majority in the developing world, and billions of people lack a safe, reliable toilet or latrine. More than a billion people defecate in the open.

“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.”

The foundation also announced $42 million in new sanitation grants that aim to spur innovations in the capture and storage of waste, as well as its processing into reusable energy, fertilizer, and fresh water. In addition, the foundation will support work with local communities to end open defecation and increase access to affordable, long-term sanitation solutions that people will want to use.

Improved sanitation can have a significant impact on the lives of millions of people worldwide. Reducing by half the number of people who don’t have access to basic sanitation is a key target of the United Nations’ 2015 Millennium Development Goals. Access to safe sanitation reduces child diarrhea by 30 percent and significantly increases school attendance.

Unsafe methods to capture and store waste lead to serious health problems and death. About 1.5 million children die each year from diarrheal disease, and most of these deaths could be prevented with the introduction of proper sanitation, along with safe drinking water and improved hygiene.

But Burwell emphasized that there are no silver bullets in reinventing the toilet. 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.

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.

One of the foundation’s partners is the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is launching WASH for Life through its Development Innovation Ventures program to fund projects that identify, test, and help scale up evidence-based approaches to delivering water, sanitation, and hygiene services to the poor. Both organizations will contribute $8.5 million to the four-year venture.

The foundation and its partners are focusing on affordable solutions. Sanitation services must cost no more than 5 cents per person per day and be easy to install, use, and maintain. The foundation’s strategy involves gathering evidence to determine what people want and measuring what really works. It includes stimulating demand for improved sanitation in both rural and urban communities through education and raising awareness. It also involves advocacy efforts to engage governments and other public and private partners to prioritize sanitation policies that address this urgent issue.

“Across Africa, improved sanitation is an essential human need that we must take action to address,” said Mamadou Dia, President of the African Water Association. “We welcome efforts to focus new attention, ideas and resources on this important issue.”

Sanitation brings substantial economic benefits. According to the World Health Organization, improved sanitation can produce up to $9 for every $1 invested by increasing productivity, reducing health care costs, and preventing illness, disability, and early death. People with access to clean and convenient sanitation services also experience greater dignity, privacy, and security. This is especially true of women and girls, who often miss work or school when they are menstruating and risk sexual assault when they are forced to defecate in the open or use public restrooms.

“Disease caused by unsafe sanitation accounts for roughly half of all hospitalizations in the developing world,” said Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, chair of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. “This statistic is unacceptable, as is the fact that many decision makers remain reluctant to talk about sanitation, further stigmatizing the topic, and perpetuating a crisis whose solutions are within our reach.”

Water, Sanitation & Hygiene is part of the foundation’s Global Development Program, which addresses issues such as agricultural development and financial services—problems that affect the world’s poorest people but do not receive adequate attention. With these new grants, the foundation’s commitment to Water, Sanitation & Hygiene efforts total more than $265 million. While the foundation has been making grants in the sector for five years, the new strategy represents a shift to an increased focus on sanitation.