Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Contest Flushes Out New Toilet Design 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, August 27 / 12

Zack Gross

One of the most serious global health challenges today is the fact that 2.5 billion people, thirty-five percent of the world’s population, do not have proper sanitation facilities. 

This not only leads to rampant disease, such as diarrhea, cholera and typhoid, which kills 1.5 million children every year, but also discourages girls especially from attending school due to issues around personal privacy, dignity and safety.  The normal routine for “going the bathroom” in many parts of the world is using a squat hole or going into the bush, and not having a dedicated room with a pristine porcelain throne!

The effect of this sanitation crisis is economic as well. 

Research shows that every dollar invested in improving sanitation is returned nine-fold in reversing health deficits, lost work days, cost of treatment, loss of family members and so on.

The group WaterAid values the cost of missed school and work and infant death at $34 billion per year.  Poor sanitation accounts for a loss of 5% of GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa, it says.  With increased population in South Asia, as an example, levels of solid waste in rivers (used for bathing, laundry and cooking) have increased by four times, hurting the environment as well as people.

To change this situation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose motto is “Every Life Has Equal Value
,” recently ran a global competition, the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge,” in order to kick-start research into low-cost, environmentally friendly models, appropriate for the developing world.  The top prize went to the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), which received a $400,000 grant to produce a toilet that can operate without running water, does not need a septic tank, and doesn’t generate pollutants, while running for a cost of about five cents per day.  CalTech received an additional $100,000 from Gates to fine-tune their original design.
   
When the user flushes the CalTech toilet, the water and waste collect in a small tank, and an “electrochemical reactor,” powered by solar panels, breaks the waste down into hydrogen gas, water and solids.  The gas can be used to generate electricity, the treated water can be diverted to irrigation or kept to flush the toilet, and the solids are processed into organic material suitable as a garden fertilizer. 

This new toilet and its uses are in some ways a small-scale version of other projects underway in wealthier countries where scientists and municipal authorities are reclaiming waste water and “garbage” for a multiplicity of uses, from energy production to soil improvement.

Leading up to and since the United Nations’ International Year of Sanitation, in 2008, many projects have been undertaken, and shown that disease and death rates can be brought down significantly by improving sanitation. 

In Brazil, a municipal government worked with a local university to extend that community’s sewage network and improve the available supply of water.  The impact was falling disease rates by one-quarter to one-half among young children who are the most vulnerable. 

The main problem identified was the cost to municipalities and/or individual users that put system improvements beyond the reach of the poor except in these rare, funded test cases.

Thus, the Gates model toilet may be the answer to those living in remote and rural areas who can’t hook into a system and to those who can’t afford to be part of regular infrastructure.  The next steps, after production, will be to gain acceptance for the toilet culturally and train people to use and maintain the toilet and its features properly.  Sometimes, good old American know-how in the laboratory doesn’t quite work out in the field. 

And that will mean a good idea and some of the famous Gates wealth down the drain!


Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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