Forbes: Why A Toilet Alone Won’t Do The Job: The ‘Software’ Of Sanitation Innovation
By Jessica Altenburger in Forbes, July 31, 2014
“The 2015 goal to halve the proportion of people living without sanitation is running 150 years behind schedule.”
– WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation 2010
Since 2008, the “International Year of Sanitation,” the topic of toilets has more frequently appeared in media all over the world. Despite many efforts, today there are still 2.5 billion people worldwide without access to improved sanitation. Why? Because a toilet alone won’t do the job.
Inadequate sanitation can lead to the spreading of diseases and severe health issues; the most devastating example is the 4,000 people who die from diarrhea every day, making this the second deadliest disease in the world. Recent rape incidents in India have highlighted once again the safety issues and vulnerability of girls and women when not being able to access a toilet facility. Improving sanitation also has an effect on the economy; for every $1 invested in water and sanitation, an average of at least $4 is returned in increased productivity.
Talking about sanitation on a technical level, it is important to consider the full spectrum of human waste. I like to call it the 3 Ts: Toilet technology, Transport and Treatment. For an average city in an industrialized country, this would mean a flush toilet connected to a sewer that leads to a sewage treatment plant. But for sewer systems and treatments to work, water is a crucial factor. With increasing populations, sewer constructions, maintenance and sewage treatment have become very costly and complex. If the amount of sewage overwhelms a plant’s capacity, in most countries it will be simply released into open waters or landfills and cause contamination. So imagine what the 3 Ts would look like in a city in a low-income country that lacks infrastructure, piped water supplies, sewers, treatment facilities and capital; and you see that none of the Ts as we know them fits the circumstances, nor seems to be an adequate option for the future.
In 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge (RTTC), an initiative for innovative toilet technologies. The objective was to create an all-in-one device combining all three Ts and thus overcoming challenges like limited water, energy, and funds to achieve safe removal of pathogens and environmental protection. Clearly, the foundation puts a strong focus on the hardware. The highly innovative projects that were funded have spurred well-deserved media attention and brought a new enthusiasm to the topic of sanitation provision. But the hardware innovation can’t improve sanitation conditions without accompanying services. Many enterprises have been working on sanitation issues by pairing hardware innovation with the “software” services of a human-centered approach to tackling the sanitation challenge, primarily in urban slums.
Urban slums present layers of complexity: high population density, water scarcity, severe poverty, limited space, and perhaps most devastating, a pervasive lack of basic human dignity. Due to informal and unclear land tenure, families in slum settlements are often forced to move regularly, resulting in an inability to invest in more “permanent” lifestyle amenities such as sanitation. A lack of consistent income or access to credit significantly impacts spending behaviors and eliminates long term or binding financial commitments.
An estimated 860 million people live in slums, and approximately 750 million do not have access to safe sanitation. The slum population is the most rapidly growing demographic in the world and is estimated to reach 1.4 billion people by 2020. And the sanitation problems follow the same correlation, so a solution that’s appropriate for the slums is one that’s likely to create great impact.
That’s why sustainable sanitation enterprises such as Sanergy in Kenya, SOIL and Re.Source in Haiti, Loowatt in Madagascar and our very own x-runner in Peru started out with their future customer—the slum resident—as their focus point. The designs of these sanitation systems were developed primarily from within the slums and often together with the customers. The systems do not rely on complex processes or innovations; instead, they can apply simpler and more affordable technologies that easily adapt to the particular slum lifestyle challenges. All of these slum enterprises operate with a container-based service system (CBS). Whether on a household or public level, they sell or rent out toilets for an affordable price that collect waste in sealable cartridges without the need of water or chemicals. The enterprises regularly collect the containers and transport them to treatment facilities where the waste is naturally processed into valuable end products like compost and biogas. When designing these programs, these sustainability leaders consider the experience for the customer, seeking to understand his or her particular mentality; the capacity for adaptability of the system; and how technology, transport and treatment can be sustainably coordinated.
This results in a very appealing service for the customer, who receives an unprecedented amount of attention and a sense of reliability and safety that technology and infrastructure alone cannot provide. The systems can react to failure as much as they can adapt to innovations.
Jessica Altenburger is the Founder and Head of Research and Development of x-runner Venture, a sustainable sanitation enterprise for slums in Lima. Peru.