Getting Serious about the World's Toilet Problem

By Deputy Editor Tom Murphy

Toilets may not be a topic that get as much attention as others, but over 1 billion people around the world must defecate out in the open and over 2 billion people do not have access to clean and private toilets. That means that billions are at risk of diseases that are spread through fecal matter such as diarrhea and cholera.

Today’s World Toilet Day is meant to make some noise about the issue by raising awareness. The stakes are high and the issue is serious. According to the WHO, the areas with the lowest access to proper sanitation are sub-Saharan Africa (31%), southern Asia (36%) and Oceania (53%). “World Toilet Day has a serious purpose: it aims to stimulate dialogue about sanitation and break the taboo that still surrounds this issue,” says the World Toilet Day website. “In addition, it supports advocacy that highlights the profound impact of the sanitation crisis in a rigorous manner, and seeks to bring to the forefront the health and emotional consequences, as well as the economic impact of inadequate sanitation.”

Toilets are not only a good idea because of the health gains that they create, but they provide a measured economic benefit. “Studies show that each dollar invested in sanitation generates good return. This investment potential is lost, however, on the one in three people in the world who dream of what the rest of us take for granted: a clean toilet,” explained Chris Williams, the Executive Director of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council in a release. India’s Ganges river is often cited as a place where open defecation turns the river into a disease breeding ground. The WHO quantifies the impact on the river:

Lack of sanitation facilities forces people to defecate in the open, in rivers or near areas where children play or food is prepared. This increases the risk of transmitting disease. The Ganges river in India has 1.1 million litres of raw sewage dumped into it every minute, a startling figure considering that one gram of faeces may contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1000 parasite cysts and 100 worm eggs.

WaterAid is marking the day by bringing to attention the burden felt by the one billion women who do not have adequate toilet access. “When women don’t have a safe, secure and private place to go to the toilet they are exposed and put in a vulnerable position and when they relieve themselves in the open they risk harassment. Women are reluctant to talk about it or complain, but the world cannot continue to ignore this,” says Barbara Frost, Chief Executive of WaterAid, in a press release.

Improving sanitation can have meaningful and lasting impacts on the health of people. The Gates Foundation is taking the issue seriously by making an investment in the re-invention of the toilet. This past July, Gates held a large event that brought together global innovators with the collective goal to develop a new toilet that can meet the needs of the world’s poor.

Fast Company highlighted one of the Gates grant winners, called Caltech, today.

The seeds of Caltech’s toilet were planted 17 years ago when Caltech engineer (and toilet team leader) Michael Hoffmann patented a design for “multilayered nanostructures doing electrochemical degradation,” according to team member Asghar Aryanfar. “He was looking for any kind of application until Bill Gates announced the competition,” says Aryanfar.

The toilet features a solar panel that powers an electrochemical reactor, which in turn breaks down waste into sanitized solids (a useful fertilizer) and hydrogen that can be stored in fuel cells to power the reactor on cloudy days. A pump sends treated water to a reservoir on the top of the toilet, where it can be used for irrigation or other purposes.

Aside from the electrodes, which have an estimated lifetime of a decade, all the mechanical parts in the toilet are easily reparable–a key feature in remote areas. “Making the comprehensive prototype is a little challenging. We’re looking at different shipping containers so we can ship easily,” says Aryanfar. “The good thing is we know the technology works. What remains is the prototyping.”

Caltech’s solar toilet team now has $1.6 million in funding from the Gates Foundation; they expect to have a prototype ready to ship to Africa–with a price tag of approximately $2,200–by December 2013.

The private sector is also taking an interest in the problem of toilet access. Unilever announced the launch of its Domestos Toilet Academy in Vietnam. The company is partnering with the government of Vietnam to provide the appropriate training and resources that that entrepreneurs can bring clean sanitation to their communities. The program hopes to achieve the dual goal of increasing sanitation access while stimulating new jobs and work opportunities in Vietnam.

Vietnamese Minister of Health, Dr Nguyen Thi Kim Tien, lauded Unilever’s initiative saying, “The active participation of businesses like Unilever, helping improve health and hygiene for communities is greatly appreciated and widely acknowledged. The launch of the Toilet Academy clearly demonstrates Unilever’s enormous effort and will positively contribute to improve sanitary conditions for Vietnamese people.”

Unilever’s Domestos brand teamed up with the London School on Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to produce a white paper that accounts for the burden created by poor access to proper sanitation. The authors advocate for an equatable approach to addressing the problem of improved sanitation which will need to reach 120 million people a year through 2015 in order to achieve the MDG related to sanitation access. It calls governments, donors and the private sector to make sanitation a priority issue and says that more long term studies are needed to understand the complete impact that poor sanitation has on people living in developing countries.

The sanitation gap will be filled not by aid alone, but by partnerships argues Therese Dooley, UNICEF’s senior advisor on sanitation. “No aid operation in the world can provide toilets for1.1 billion people,” says Dooley. “They have to do it for themselves—with support,” says Dooley in a UNICEF press release. “And we’ve found, in fact, that it is only when they do it for themselves that the changes are achievable and sustainable.”