If you live in one of the world’s developed countries, you probably take your loo for granted.
But around one-third of the world’s population has no flush toilet at all, not in their homes, maybe not even in their neighborhoods. That’s 2.6 billion people with no access to a safe sewer system, and with nowhere to dispose of human waste.
On yesterday’s episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Science Friday, Dr. Frank Rijsberman, director of water sanitation and hygiene at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, discusses the problem of sanitation in the world’s poorest quarters.
“Flush toilets have saved more lives than any other invention,” says Dr. Rijsberman, “but at the same time, lack of them still causes an incredible number of death among young children from diarrhea.”
Organizers of World Toilet Day want to get a conversation going about the problem of access to sanitation in the developing world. In that vein, Dr. Rijsberman has issued a call to innovators and engineers to retool the privy—to create a functioning toilet “that doesn’t flush clean water down an expensive set of pipes.” There’s potential energy in human waste, he points out. Energy that can be used.
Even composting toilets, which might be fine for rural cabins, won’t work in high-density slums where sanitation is a huge problem. Dr. Rijsberman says he’s looking for “an aspirational product”—the iPhone of toilets—something that doesn’t require a clean-water flush system and would be safe, sanitary…and unstinky, something “that you and I would also want to have in our house.”
“We do think that particularly for people who live in slums in developing countries, in very high density, low income areas, we don’t really have a toilet that works for poor people,” he says. ”We think we can see solutions that will be ready for millions of people more like in three to five years, rather than 20 to 30.”
To learn more about the “Reinventing the Toilet Challenge,” visit the Impatient Optimists blog, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Related reading: The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, by Rose George