“Reinventing the toilet”: a justification?

The Gates Foundation’s recent announcement that it wanted to “reinvent the toilet” was understandably met with cautious scepticism by some in the sector. But the text is now online of a more detailed speech where the head of the WASH program at the Foundation, Frank Rijsberman, tries to satisfy us “hardcore water and sanitation enthusiasts”.

The whole speech is worth reading in full, but here are some highlights and comments:

The only form of sanitation that we are really interested in is on-site sanitation, i.e., sanitation that is not connected to sewers. It is a wonderful ambition to provide entire populations with gold-standard flush toilets connected to sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants. Indeed, this still appears to be official policy in many places. But it is not the form of sanitation that serves the people we aim to serve…

That does not mean, however, that we think that poor people, who can’t afford the flush toilets that you and I use, have to be satisfied with the outhouses that we happily left behind us sometime in the last century…. Wouldn’t you rather have a toilet in your house that directly recovers the energy, nutrients, and water that we currently throw away? Wouldn’t you like a toilet that helps you recycle waste in the same way that we now recycle paper, glass, and plastic? I bet you would. So, yes, we think that the toilet should be reinvented.

Well, maybe some people would. But we know already that cultural attitudes to shit (and what to do with it) differ widely according to time and place and have a big influence on what types of toilets people use (or don’t). The ambition here is to use the technology to change people’s desires – “toilets that everyone will aspire to have”. Rijsberman makes the now-common comparison between the number of mobile phones and toilets in Africa and extends the analogy to iPads and Kindles, things we didn’t know we wanted until we saw them. It’s certainly ambitious, and I’m fascinated to see how the different grantees for the toilet-reinvention challenge try to adapt and pitch the different ideas in different contexts.

Rijsberman himself acknowledges that being “technology zealots” is not a single answer. Science and technology – aka the reinvented toilet – is only the first of the Foundation’s three sanitation initiatives. The second is delivery of programs at scale, based on Community Led Total Sanitation – what Rijsberman refers to as CLTS++. I like the organisation’s key questions:

  1. What is the effectiveness and cost of the initial program that supports ending open defecation for millions of people?
  2. What is the sustainability of such programs? Are communities still ODF 12 or 24 months later?
  3. What is the sustainability of such programs in terms of emptying the latrines when they are full – even in rural areas?
  4. What is the most effective way of combining supply-side measures, such as sanimarts, with CLTS-style demand creation?
  5. What is the degree to which subsidies are necessary to reach the poorest of the poor?
  6. What is the most effective way to engage to engage with, or hand over, CLTS efforts to governments?

This final question – reaching the stage of government-enabled services rather than one-off programs – is key. As I have noted before, the question of where CLTS fits into wider public health policy is a tricky one. Going by this speech, the Gates Foundation’s idea seems to be to work out how to push down the cost of CLTS as much as possible, so that it becomes possible for governments in poor countries to support rural sanitation services via this approach. It will be interesting to see how this develops given some of the other obstacles identified by CLTS proponents such as vested interests in hardware-subsidy and construction projects, and to what extent cost is a driver compared to other influences. The third aspect of the Foundation’s strategy is the policy and advocacy necessary to promote the role of governments in providing or enabling sanitation services. There are a few examples of this work in the speech, but given the Foundation’s other initiatives, it will be worth watching how they further position themselves in this arena.


2 Comments on ““Reinventing the toilet”: a justification?”

  1. David L says:

    Having read George’s ‘Big Necessity’ I can now understand not only the acronyms [!], but also how reasonable. relevant and sensible this proposal is. George also points us to the many cultural challenges that will stand in the way of progress no matter how laudable. I do wonder why not here too having questioned whether our system for disposing of human waste matter i.e. shit, is really the best model. I shall watch developments with interest but will not be expecting much if any evidence of progress in my lifetime.

  2. […] vaccination programmes, it also gives money to riskier ideas with less predictable outcomes – see reinventing the toilet. Secondly – as we discussed at the recent learning event on sustainability in London – not all […]

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