Why Reinventing the Toilet Should Be the Next Great Charity Project

Toilets are not glamorous. Few people write poetry about them or crucially donate money to build them. The toilet’s lack of glamour may seem like a non-problem, but it’s actually one of the largest issues in the field of development. People hand over money willingly to build wells or build schools because they have a substance and a glamour that poor old toilets just don’t have. Yet while building schools and educating young people is an important job, ensuring that they stay alive but having adequate sanitation to get that education is more important. More children under 5 die from diarrheal conditions than from HIV/AIDs and Malaria, and that is why reinventing the toilet should be the next great charity project.

(Not) the greatest thing since indoor plumbing

The hitch in the plan when it comes to building toilets is that the concept of a toilet that we have in the developed world just doesn’t work elsewhere, The price of developing a complicated plumbing system for large swathes of the world is astronomical, and it has other drawbacks too. We like to rave above indoor plumbing when in fact it is incredibly wasteful (pardon the pun) and terrible for the environment.

Because of this, we have developed simple toilets like ‘long drops’ that work in certain situations. However they are still relatively expensive to build and cannot be replicated on a massive scale to solve the sanitation crisis in the developing world. A new idea is desperately needed if we want to solve the issue.

Introducing Norman Borlaug

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Sometimes the methods we use in the developed world just aren’t suited to the developing world. When wheat grown in the west was shown to be top-heavy and unsuited to growth in warmer climates we didn’t stop until we reinvented wheat. Few people know the name Norman Borlaug because he works in the generally unrewarding field plant pathology, Norman actually won a Nobel Peace Prize for saving billions of lives. He didn’t do it by standing in front of tanks or bringing down a dictator but simply creating a new kind of wheat that could grow in harsh climates. This dwarf wheat that was shorter and more disease resistance, allowing it to grow like no other crop – feeding and saving literally billions of people who would have otherwise starved. The so-called ‘green revolution’ that Borlaug started worked because he thought outside the box and reinvented something to make it work in the developing world. It’s that kind of thinking that saves lives, and that’s why we need a ‘toilet revolution’.

How to start a toilet revolution

Many organisations are already trying to kick start a toilet revolution with the aim of saving the lives of millions each year that die from a lack of adequate sanitation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently sponsored a competition for inventors to come up with a new toilet based on certain parameters: it must be a stand-alone unit, it cannot use piped in water or electricity and it must operate for less than 5 cents a day. The myraid of ideas that the competition came up with (from using urine to flush a toilet and using excrement to power a microwave) mightn’t be the most useful at the moment but the ideas could be developed into something that could be mass produced for cheap. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation claims that for ever $1 spent on sanitation $9 are gained because of a decrease in healthcare costs and other benefits. Investing in a toilet revolution can save lives, make money and help those who need it most. So what’s to lose?

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