The need to make sanitation accessible to the poor is clear. Some 40 percent of the world’s population – 2.5 billion people – use unsanitary or unsafe pit latrines or practice open defecation, and the consequences can be devastating. One of the most shocking is this: Every year, food and water tainted with fecal matter cause up to 2.5 billion cases of diarrhea among children under 5, resulting in 1.5 million child deaths.
The flush toilet, as we know it in the developed world, hasn’t changed much since the development of the ‘water closet’ more than 200 years ago. While it has saved lives and improved the health of millions, it also uses a significant amount of potable water, requires expensive maintenance and isn’t a sustainable solution for everyone.
We kicked off the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge in 2011 looking for new ways to bring sanitation to those who need it. Working with partners around the world, we aim to create a next-generation toilet, one that: removes pathogens from human waste and recovers valuable resources such as energy, clean water and nutrients; operates off the grid without connections to water, sewer or electrical lines; and costs less than 5 cents per user per day. The aim is to create a toilet that everyone will want to use – people in wealthy as well as developing nations.
We held a landmark event in August 2012, where we brought together people from around the world to showcase their innovations for the next generation of sanitation. At the fair, we announced top prizes of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. First prize went to the California Institute of Technology in the U.S. for a solar-powered toilet that generates electricity; second prize went to Loughborough University in the U.K. for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals and clean water; and third prize went to the University of Toronto in Canada for a toilet that sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water. Special recognition went to Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) and EOOS for their outstanding design of a toilet user interface.
The fair was exciting because it forged new working relationships between inventors, researchers, academics, governments and others. We are hopeful that this strong, robust collaboration will help create sustainable sanitation solutions for people around the world.