Innovators Answer the Gates Call to Reinvent the Toilet

The winners of the Reinvent the Toilet challenge hosted by the Gates Foundation were announced this week. Participants were encouraged to innovate on the toilet to bring better sanitation to the world’s poorest. “To pass the foundation’s threshold for the world’s next toilet, it must operate without running water, electricity or a septic system, not discharge pollutants, preferably capture energy or other resources, and operate at a cost of 5 cents a day,” explains NPR.

The winners were California Institute of Technology ($100,000 first prize), Loughborough University ($60,000 second prize) and University of Toronto ($40,000 third prize). A two day fair wraps up today in Seattle that serves as a place for the innovators who have heeded the challenge’s call to share their ideas and inventions.

Mark Tran summarizes the importance of the innovation for the Guardian.

Sanitation and hygiene have been the poor cousins in the global water, sanitation and hygiene work and programmes, outfunded by as much as 13 to one, even though most water-related diseases are really sanitation-related diseases.

In March, the UN announced that the world had reached the goal of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water, well ahead of the 2015 deadline. However, the world is still far from meeting the MDG target for sanitation, and is unlikely to do so by 2015.

Only 63% of the world population has access to improved sanitation, a figure projected to increase to only 67% by 2015, well below the 75% target in the MDGs. Currently 2.5 billion people lack access to an “improved sanitation facility”, which hygienically separates human waste from human contact.

As Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, has acknowledged, sanitation is a sensitive and unpopular subject. It is not a high-profile issue, although the UN declared access to water and sanitation a fundamental right in 2010 and there is a UN rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

At the current rate, the world will miss the sanitation MDG target by 13 percentage points, meaning there will be 2.6 billion people without access to improved sanitation, according to the 2010 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef joint monitoring programme for water supply and sanitation (pdf). If things carry on as they are, the MDG target will not be met until 2049.

As many as 1.2 billion people practice what the UN describes as “open defecation”. They go to the toilet behind bushes, in fields, in plastic bags or along railway tracks. The practice poses particular problems for women and girls, who can be subject to physical and verbal abuse or humiliation.

According to the WHO, improved sanitation delivers up to $9 in social and economic benefits for every $1 invested because it increases productivity, reduces healthcare costs, and prevents illness, disability, and early death

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  • Emily Moore

    I read in Osher Institute a piece on Toilets I Have Known. I’m an international relief and development worker, focused on public health; the 85 countries in which I’ve lived, worked, studied, or traveled, about half were on my own nickel when hotel rooms, toilet down the hall, were $1 a night; I began my interest in toilets and lack thereof on encountering pissoirs in Paris, and years later when I finally got to work in developing countries, I found enough grisly, funny, innovative situations in which toilets or lack thereof made for interesting anecdotes. Most amusing: the foreign-built latrine (no one asked locals what they use to wipe after defecating) that quickly filled up with . . . smooth round stones. Locals then asked, what happens now, will you build us a new latrine? Misguided foreign assistance, beautifully illustrated.

  • Garikayi Burutsa

    Ha ha ha, Emily it’s a bit funny they built toilets and made no budget for biodegradable wipes but hey I think the pit latrine can be improved to capture the gas for heat light etc