CGP Water Series | Flushing into the 21st Century

Some philanthropists want their name on a college library. Bill Gates will settle for a toilet.

Maybe it will be the microwave toilet that “transform[s] human waste to electricity.”  Then again, a toilet that can recover energy through feces combustion and clean water through desalination sounds even more incredible.

On July 19, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced $42 million dollars in grants to “Reinvent the Toilet.” The two projects mentioned above are among the eight chosen to be the earliest recipients. By the end of the year, the Gates Foundation hopes to have 50-60 more toilet designs by teams across the world.

When Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President of the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program, made the announcement of these grants, she emphasized that the sanitation crisis of the 21st century requires “not just new technologies, but new ways of thinking.” Human waste is more than just waste, she told the audience of AfricaSan, an annual gathering of sanitation experts in Rwanda. It contains “valuable and recyclable materials” that can be tapped by local businesses and communities.

Alex Tabarrok of the blog Marginal Revolution is cautiously optimistic about the Gates Foundation’s efforts, but he is not above mocking some of the “highly unrealistic” proposals. By the time a society can adopt a toilet with microwave technology, he points out, it surely would already have flush toilets.

Admittedly, many of the designs that the Gates Foundation announced sound fantastical. But just because the ideas are novel does not mean they are unfeasible. A fact sheet for the program lays out the (very sensible) criteria for the toilet prototypes:

  • Be hygienic and sustainable for the world’s poorest populations
  • Have an operational cost of $0.05 per user, per day
  • Not discharge pollutants, but instead generates energy and recovers salt, water and other nutrients
  • Be designed for use in a single family home

The point isn’t to build a system of sewers and sanitation, as exists in most of the developed world. The Gates Foundation is actually aiming for something higher: a sustainable sanitation system that, instead of hiding away human waste somewhere, will extract its hidden potential.

CGP has previously discussed the sanitation crisis in the developing world, and the Gates Foundation should be commended for its dedication to this touchy (and smelly) issue. But because sanitation issues are complex, even building the best toilet in the world doesn’t address the magnitude of the problem.

Julia Bucknall, who writes for the World Bank blog “Private Sector Development,” points out that toilets aren’t just about technology or infrastructure: some of the most promising efforts in sanitation rely on micro-level programs.  In a classic example of bottom-of-the-pyramid marketing, Bucknall argues that toilets are commodities, and local entrepreneurs can use them to create local jobs and local wealth.

But how do you convince people that they need a toilet in the first place? Duncan Green highlighted one approach on his blog: Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS).

In its classic form, [CLTS] uses the crude local word for [excrement] and encourages local communities to visit the dirtiest and filthiest areas in the neighbourhood. Appraising and analysing their practices shocks, disgusts and shames people. This style is provocative and fun, and is hands-off in leaving decisions and action to the community.

-from the CLTS handbook

Under this scheme, development workers act as “facilitators,” but it is local communities who make the final decisions. It is an irreverent effort that encourages communities to face their own problems.

All of this has gotten a little far from the initiatives announced by the Gates Foundation, and although our 10th grade English teacher always said “Keep a tight thesis,” sanitation just isn’t one of those issues that can be addressed without mentioning some tangents.  Toilets alone won’t work. As UN Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque quipped, the Gates Foundation is building hardware when it’s the software that makes the system run.

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