The Gates Foundation announced on Tuesday that it is providing $42 M in new sanitation grants to spur innovations in the capture and storage of waste, as well as its processing into reusable energy, fertilizer, and fresh water.” More specifically, the goal is to “reinvent the toilet”. Grants have gone out to 8 universities around the world to work on the challenge of reinventing the toilet as a stand-alone unit without piped-in water, a sewer connection, or outside electricity all for less than 5 cents a day. Other technology partnerships are being developed.
According to the World Health Organization
, it is estimated that over 1 billion people defecate in the open air
because they have no sewer/water hook up/waste water treatment infrastructure. More than 2.5 billion people suffer from a lack of access to improved sanitation. The sanitation habits of those over 2 billion people (almost a 1/3rd of the world’s population!) contaminate water sources, contribute to air borne and water borne diseases, and attract vermin. The health risk is enormous and it takes some enormous resources to tackle such a project. Even if the human plight isn’t enough of a global concern for some, there is significant economic benefit of improved water and sanitation. It is estimated by the World Health Organization that improved sanitation in developing countries can produce up from $3 to $34, depending on the region, for every $1 invested
by increased productivity, reduced health care costs, and preventing illness, disability, and early death. So, not only is it the right thing to do from a humanist perspective, there is a strong economic incentive to develop sanitation and water quality in developing countries.
But there is something in our own sanitation habits that we in the developed world can change as well. It should come as no surprise that our sewer/waste treatment infrastructure in many local communities is getting a little old and very costly. Such infrastructure cost/management is usually done at very local community levels (albeit often with start up funds from federal or state money). No one should be surprised that local community coffers are strained beyond belief. So there is an economic incentive to innovate even for us that are used to flush toilets as a mere “right” of being a U.S. citizen.
Further, we use fresh potable water(!) to deposit our waste in. So for a “developed” country, we can do better.
While the developing world is the real target of the improved technology, our modern waste water treatment infrastructure systems (and building codes) are ready for a technology overhaul. I say congratulations and good luck to the Gates Foundation as they put serious money and emphasis on a rather unmentionable topic. The Foundation is looking at cutting edge technology that can turn human waste into fuel to power local communities, fertilizer to improve crops, or even safe drinking water. I hope that this significant attention (economic and general advocacy) brings much needed attention and important voice to a fundamental and universal human need. And doing so effectively, economically, efficiently, and improving water quality or decreasing need to use fresh potable water will be a significant benefit for all (nearly) 7 billion of us.