Worldwide, about 2.6 billion people use unsafe toilets or defecate in the open. Millions of tons of excreta end up in our environment and cause diarrhoeal disease, killing 1.5 million children each year. Today, the Gates Foundation has invited the brightest innovators to ‘reinvent the toilet’ . They will present their proposals for solutions to the immense challenge of ending open defecation and reducing the health, developmental and environmental burdens that result from inadequate sanitation.
And this is certainly a challenge that merits urgent action. As they say on their website: Smart investments in sanitation can reduce disease, increase family incomes, keep girls in school, help preserve the environment, and enhance human dignity.
But, why do 4 out of 10 people still not have access to safe sanitation? Yes, technology is part of the problem. For example in areas with high groundwater tables, where we currently have no low-cost sanitation technology that keeps faeces safely separated from human contact. And, a big problem is that most people in developing countries that do have toilets, rely on pit latrines or septic tanks, while there are insufficient options for safe disposal or treatment once these containers fill. Various types of toilets convert the pit contents into safe compost or even biogas, but in general the technology problem is that we focus exclusively on the toilet itself (containment of faeces).
Looking beyond the toilet
Changing this situation requires overcoming several challenges. The first is that we currently design and plan for the containment of faeces and not for transport, treatment and final disposal or productive use. These are crucial steps in ensuring that that untreated faeces do not end up in the environment.
The second challenge is that there are a lot of reasons why existing technologies fail, that are related to the technology, but not (only) technical: the technology is unaffordable for the poorest, construction materials are not available, local workmanship is of low quality, etc. And thirdly, to ensure that technologies are used, we need to understand what consumers want. It’s households who make the decision to invest in a toilet. The process of technology introduction, demand creation and hygiene behaviour change is a crucial factor in determining if the technology will be taken up.
Technologies do matter, but it takes a lot more…
In many countries, a range sanitation technologies are piloted. Some work well and go to scale, while others break down or do not deliver the services they were intended to provide. There are very few standards for assessment and introduction of technology at local levels. To address this gap, the WASHTech project is collaborating with national and local government, academic institutions, private sector enterprises, WASH agencies and donors in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Uganda to develop a simple participatory tool for assessing the potential of innovative WASH technologies and the performance of conventional technologies in a given context.
The technology assessment framework is now under development and examines key criteria such as the performance of the technology, the market potential, whether the technology can be applied widely, support required from government and private sector institutions and sustainability of the technology over time.
We need innovators and creative thinkers to solve the sanitation challenge. And technology is one part of the puzzle. In addition to improving technology, we need to reflect on what we know already, understand what sanitation options people want and strengthen the enabling environment for sanitation services that last. This means investing in formative research and behaviour change, strengthening governance and accountability, working on better supply chains as well as in technology that is not only innovative, but also appropriate.