Blog post

Putting the sexy into sanitation

3 min read
Oct 9, 2012

Welcome to the inaugural post in our series bringing you news items and current affairs stories related to international development and charitable giving. In the first post, I will discuss the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinventing the Toilet Challenge.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recently announced the winner and runners up in its Reinventing the Toilet Challenge. The Foundation has already invested approximately $3.2 million in the project and will further fund the testing of some of the prototypes entered into the competition. The success of the challenge demonstrates the usefulness of innovative methods in distributing funding: in this case the use of a competition to spur research and development. Furthermore the competition has succeeded in raising the public profile of a significant but often neglected development problem as it has garnered significant media attention. (See, for example, this article published on the BBC News website today.)

The UN estimates that there are about 2.5 billion people living without access to basic sanitation facilities. Preventable diseases linked to inadequate sanitation may cause the death of 1.5 million children annually, from conditions such as diarrhoea. Problems related to sanitation also have high attendant economic costs. For example, girls are often not sent to school if the building lacks sanitary facilities. The Foundation estimates that every $1 dollar invested in improving sanitation would produce a $9 return. Despite the serious human and economic costs of bad or non-existent sanitation the UN admits that the Millennium Development Goal for sanitation will probably not be met.

The goal of the challenge was to find sustainable solutions to sanitation that local communities would and could adopt. The most common method of sanitation, the flushing toilet unfortunately doesn't fit the bill. Flush toilets use up wasteful quantities of water and also require a sophisticated sewage system to function well. This makes them both unsustainable and very expensive. The flush toilet is clearly not a good solution in areas suffering from water shortage and without reliable infrastructure. Entrants to the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge had to come up with solutions which, unlike the flush toilet, are cheap, sustainable and easy to implement.

The winning toilet was developed by the California Institute of Technology. It is powered by solar energy and treats waste so that the end products are useful. It produces chlorine, a disinfectant, hydrogen which can be used for cooking and fertiliser. The runner up was designed by researchers at Loughborough University. It uses a chemical process to power itself and treat waste. In third place, the team from the University of Toronto created a toilet that powers itself and sanitises waste by using sand.

At the moment, the prototypes are quite expensive to make. But all three have the potential, when mass produced, to provide a cheap method of alleviating a problem blighting the lives of billions.