Why We Need More Innovation in Sanitation

Why We Need More Innovation in Sanitation
ROBERTO SCHMIDT via Getty Images

This World Toilet Day, it's time for new solutions to tackle and old problem.

Bill Gates once said that there are not enough smart people working in toilets. It's not hard to see why people finishing school today don't say, "I want to go and make toilets". But it's time for this to change. It's time we open the eyes of the brightest young thinkers today and inspire them to choose to work in sanitation by showing them they can make a difference. Future engineers, scientists, psychologists, designers and entrepreneurs, there's so much opportunity for the next generation to bring about life-changing transformation.

Perhaps we don't realise the gravity of the need. We recognise the importance of clean water, of eliminating disease, but often in the Western world we don't connect these things to sanitation. Or we deprioritise sanitation without realising the power it has to improve lives. 1 in 3 people - that's 2.4 billion - live without access to proper sanitation. An estimated 800 children under 5 years of age die every day from diarrheal disease caused by a lack of hygienic water and sanitary living conditions. And all of this costs the global economy $222.9 billion - over half of which is the result of death (LIXIL & Oxford Economics).

But sometimes numbers aren't helpful. Imagine if you couldn't go to the toilet at work because there wasn't one. Imagine if you or your mother, sister or wife wasn't able to relieve themselves at night for fear of being raped. Imagine if the girls in your family dropped out of school because they couldn't face having to change sanitary products in public. Sanitation is something we take for granted, but these are very real situations that exist across the world today. And if there's one thing I've learned in recent years, it's the power of sanitation to put a smile on someone's face. To give someone their dignity back.

The world missed the Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to basic sanitation by nearly 700 million people (World Health Organisation). This despite substantial government action. And now we've set ourselves an even greater challenge: Sustainable Development Goal 6 - to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. So there's a tremendous need to find solutions and this needs to go beyond government and business. Sanitation needs to be everybody's business.

But our toilets aren't suited to the contexts of those living without access. For instance, the typical 'western-style' flush toilet uses around 6 litres of water for each flush, which isn't practical when 1/5 of the world's population live in areas of water scarcity. That's why when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called for innovative solutions, I, alongside many others, felt compelled to act.

I visited a village called Rajshahi in Bangladesh and spoke to people on the ground. What I saw was a need for simple, water-saving innovations that the local community could rally behind. I learned that it wasn't about re-inventing the wheel. There is a power in simplicity. That's something that guided me in developing the first SATO - a plastic toilet that sits on top of open pit latrines and features a counter-weighted trap door that quickly seals to prevent smell and keep insects away, preventing disease.

And after we delivered the second iteration of the SATO, I remember being humbled by the reaction of those in Uganda and Rwanda, who were amazed that it was possible for their toilet not to smell. Several Rwandans commented how it was now possible to actually use the courtyard-like areas around their toilet. But the most memorable moment was when a 13-year old girl said to me, "We used to put up a curtain and queue outside waiting to use the toilet. We used to get injured by the broken iron sheets. The ones we have now; they are very good. Boys can't see us and they're clean." This was the moment I knew the work we were doing, finding innovative ways to reach the unserved, was vital.

Then there is the novel thinking in terms of behaviour change. 946 million across the world defecate in the open. Of these, 564 million live in India (Team Swachh Bharat). And often this isn't because they have to. It's the norm in many rural villages. For product innovations to be effective we also need to create demand for toilets. That's why I'm excited to see ideas emerging from others in the Toilet Board Coalition as to how we can do this, from introducing tech into toilets, enticing people to use them, to programmes that reward people for using a toilet. Public toilets that clean themselves, that generate and conserve power, that are also Wi-Fi hotspots or provide mobile phone re-charging points...and I'm still talking about developing markets here. We should be excited for the future.

Unless we change attitudes towards the toilet industry and get our best minds, entrepreneurs, businesses, governments and charities to work together the costs of poor sanitation are just going to increase and the greater tragedy is the human cost.

I hope the world will take note this World Toilet Day, and that maybe one more young mind will choose to help change the world.


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