Transforming the World with a Toilet

August 29, 2012

By Matt Palmer

Bill Gates is working to transform the developing world with a toilet. Before I go into that, I want to offer a little personal context to the story.

I made my first trip to Kenya in March of 2006 for the making of my feature documentary “Letters From Litein“. It was an exciting time, but also a little scary. The trip came together so quickly that I did not have time to think too much about what I was heading into. My notions and knowledge of Africa formed through the media, and typically the only stories we read or see about Africa tend refer to  AIDS, famine, poverty, and war.

Of course, reality is far more complex. While AIDS, famine, poverty and war do exist throughout many countries in Africa, on the ground, after driving across the Rift Valley from Nairobi to Litein in western Kenya, I began to experience something I was not expecting. Beauty, joy, warmth, friendship. The landscape is breathtaking, to be sure, but my interactions with the Kenyan people transformed me in a profound way. The people I have met on my four trips to Kenya and Tanzania were amazing. Warm, welcoming, and always ensuring that we were greeted and treated with respect and honour.

Now on to the less pleasant part. My trip to Kenya was my first foray to the Third World. Not much can prepare you for the first time you are faced with a pressing need, and nothing but a hole in the ground, and no toilet paper. Now, I have to say I was lucky that I only ran into this situation a few times. Mostly I was able to avail myself of proper toilets. Many Kenyans and Sub-Saharan Africans do not have the luxury of a real toilet.

On a later trip to Tanzania with the Mary Tidlund Foundation, as part of a medical mission to the remote village of Oldeani, I spent time teaching young kids and teens how to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. It was a lot of fun, and the kids loved it. Of course, an irony in this: none of these kids have running water in their homes. They have to haul water from the nearest river or stream, for some a journey of ten miles. If they were hauling water for basic things like cooking, I wondered how high a priority washing hands would be, yet it needs to be the highest in order to stave off disease.

This is a hard reality for so many people in the developing world. Access to basic human resources to live a healthy life are lacking.

Onto the stage comes Bill Gates and his new project to fund the development of a toilet that does not need water, electricity, or a septic system, and turns the waste in to usable energy or other resources, and costs less than five cents a day to operate. This is sheer brilliance.

It is estimated that 2.5 BILLION people lack access to modern sanitation. This is a staggering number. The impacts on health outcomes for these people are obvious, sad and need to be changed.

Gates expects to have prototypes ready to roll out in three years, and he surmises that the technology could be used in wealthier countries. It needs too. Sit back for a moment and consider how much water you use every day for personal needs. Even new low flow systems can still use a couple of litres per flush. An interesting project would be to track your water usage on a daily basis. What is that number? What can you do to reduce it? Shorter showers. Turning the tap off when brushing teeth. Using the maxim “if it’s yellow let it mellow”.

New toilet systems that not only reduced water usage to zero, but also produced energy and other products will have an enormous impact on the global ecological and economic system.

Bill Gates sanitation project is the kind of inspired thinking (and funding), that while on the surface not seem like a big deal to First Worlders, could produce huge positive impacts for all of us.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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2 Responses to Transforming the World with a Toilet

  1. Joe Thornton says:

    Good on Bill! This is a subject that I chased for awhile back in the 80’s. Working as a Production/Location Manager back in those days one of the things we were always running into was the problem of toilets and how to deal with the aspect of a massively heavy vehicle special built to haul around tons of water. I found a company that manufactured and sold composting toilets. One toilet was designed to handle the needs of a family of six for a year and would produce a tray about 3″ thick and about 2′ X 2′ containing dehydrated waste. It did use a minor amount of electricity for a fan that blew through the tray. The unit was vented and had charcoal filters so odor was not a problem. Since all waste is about 98% water its a brilliant strategy. I tried to get interest from the usual suspects in building a honey wagon based on this concept but it was always a no go. Teamsters were too used to overtime to drive the unit out every two or three days to dump and reload with fresh water. The concept however stuck with me and I used the toilet in several cabin situations with success. If Gates can do this it has massive implications for cities, again if you can get people past their prejudices surrounding the whole subject.

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