Sanitation is not a dirty word. Sanitation matters. Poor sanitation threatens public health.


A single gram of faeces contains 50 diseases, 1-million bacteria, 1,000 parasites, 100 worm eggs and 10-million viruses, by journalist Rose George’s tally. For people who have flushing toilets, this is something they rarely have to think about. But for the 2.5-billion people in the world who have no toilet at all, faeces are to blame for a devastating toll of disease. Consider some other numbers. Four thousand children die every day from diarrhoea, a common symptom from exposure to many of those faecal microbes. That’s more than die from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and measles combined. Each year, $260-billion is lost because of lack of sanitation. Despite this, just 10%-25% of related budgets focus on sanitation, compared with 75%-90% for clean water. Clean water is no help when it is continuously contaminated by poor sanitation.


"Sanitation is a cornerstone of public health," said World Health Organisation director-general Dr Margaret Chan (2008). "Improved sanitation contributes enormously to human health and wellbeing, especially for girls and women. We know that simple, achievable interventions can reduce the risk of contracting diarrhoeal disease by a third."


Many people live without flushing toilets. If the situation continues, people will continue to lose lives, miss school and contract disease.


“Nearly 40% of the world’s population lacks access to toilets, and the dignity and safety that they provide," said Ann M Veneman, UNICEF executive director. “The absence of adequate sanitation has a serious impact on health and social development, especially for children. Investments in improving sanitation will accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals and save lives.”


Using proper toilets and hand washing - preferably with soap - prevents the transfer of bacteria, viruses and parasites found in human excreta which otherwise contaminate water resources, soil and food. This contamination is a major cause of diarrhoea, the second biggest killer of children in developing countries and leads to other major diseases, such as cholera, schistosomiasis and trachoma.


Improving access to sanitation is a critical step towards reducing the effects of these diseases. It also helps create physical environments that enhance safety, dignity and self-esteem. Safety issues are particularly important for women and children, who otherwise risk sexual harassment and assault when defecating at night and in secluded areas.


Also, improving sanitation facilities and promoting hygiene in schools benefits both learning and the health of children. Child-friendly schools that offer private and separate toilets for boys and girls, as well as facilities for hand washing with soap, are better equipped to attract and retain students, especially girls. Where such facilities are not available, girls are often withdrawn from school when they reach puberty.


Imagine toilets that require no infrastructure. No pipes, no leach field under the lawn, no sewer systems running down the block. These hi-tech outhouses powder and burn the faeces and flash-evaporate the urine, rendering everything sterile along the way. Rather than wasting anything, these toilets give back: packets of urea, table salt, volumes of fresh water and enough power that you can charge your cellphone. Tie these toilets into the smart grid and the electricity can be sold back to the utility company. As a final component, do all of this at a cost to the consumer of five cents a day. It’s not just an upgrade, it’s a revolution.


Lowell Wood is an astrophysicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and got involved with the development of toilet technology through funding that eight universities received from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation program.


According to Wood, the thrust of the Gates project is to upgrade a system that hasn’t evolved in 130 years. In the developing world, where sanitation issues cause unnecessary and preventable death and disease, this will save millions of lives. In the developed world, three-quarters of a water bill is the cost of hauling away waste and running sewage-treatment plants. According to Wood, the goal is to solve two problems: find a way to use a toilet that doesn’t involve running water and sewerage, while still rendering human waste completely harmless.


This may sound like fantasy, but no magic is required. We already have the technology required and we can literally do this with off-the-shelf parts.


This progress in toilet technology will solve an enormous portion of the global disease burden. In addition to faeces and urine, this techno-toilet processes all organic wastes, including table scraps, garden cuttings and farm refuse, thus closing all the loops while providing a family with all the water they might need.


Sources and further reading:


Diamandis, H.P and Kotler, S. 2012. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think


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