Just a quick comment, Ann. Though the use of human waste for energy doesn't appear to be common, my friends who have travelled extensively inform me that the use of dried animal dung as a cooking fuel is alive and well in the third world. Nothing like a high-fiber diet to create a high energy output.
A surprising amount of what the first world considers garbage or waste actually contains energy or other properties that could be harvested: not just plastic and other landfill debris, but manure, too. Using manure as fertilizer (after lots of processing of course) isn't a new idea in history, although I believe turning it into energy is.
Dave Palmer has the right idea. Some of the Universities worldwide and in third world countries are working on a cheaper solution to drinking water and sanitation based on their individual situations and cultures. The ideas that we develop in a first world country can at the most be applied in the first world country. Anywhere else it may not be relevant. The Gates Foundation has the right attitude and we need to change our toilets in the US. They just waste a ton of water. Our lawns waste a ton of water. Our cities waste a ton of water. Let me stop.. You get the point. Water will be a big problem in the US in 10 to 15 years. Efficient use of our resources is mandatory, not a choice.
Ann, I like your take on this challenge. I didn't happen to see any entrants with half-moon cutouts on the doors. All kidding aside I think this is on the right track to focus on "appropriate" levels of technology to solve problems. The results definitely have a first world feel to them, but hopefully future challenges will incorporate use of local materials and infrastucture into the solutions. Hats off to the Gates foundation for getting the ball rolling.
In a separate story, I noticed that one of the entrants was electrically powered and turned excrement into charcoal. Although electric power is not readily available in some developing countries (which may be why it didn't win), it's an interesting idea because it apparently doesn't need a complex sanitation infrastructure.
Great points Dave. In fact, I really didn't consider how cultural differences/implications might impact use of a toilet. These types of considerations are just as integral to the maintenance and repair issues I raised earlier in terms of ensuring long-term adoption.
Considering how much pure, drinkable water is wasted on flushing toilets in the first world, this looks like a great research project that could help everyone. OTOH, dry and composting toilets have been around a long time, and are used by campers, rural hippies, and Amish communities, among others.
Good points. I think the idea of maintenance and repair needs to be part of the overall consideration of deploying these units. This is a great idea. Basic sanitation goes a long way to improving lives in developing countries. Plus, Gates got a big bang for few bucks. It's interesting to see the inventiveness that comes from relatively small prizes.
It looks like the grants (with one exception) are going to universities and research institutions in developed countries, rather than developing countries. Most people in developed countries have no idea of the realities of life for poor people in developing countries. These researchers may develop latrines that are technologically clever and highly sanitary, but unless they work closely with the people who will be using these latrines and understand their conditions of life, there is no chance of their technologies being adopted.
Interestingly enough, I was reading Gandhi's autobiography over the weekend, and in one chapter, he talks about improving the cleanliness of latrines in Rajkot. He mentioned that poor people, including untouchables, were more receptive to recommendations to improve sanitation than their better-off neighbors. But I fear that no one, whether rich or poor, will be ready to adopt a technology that has been developed by outsiders who don't understand their culture or day-to-day life. I hope that the researchers will seek the input and participation of the communities they hope to serve.
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