This is a good type of philanthropy. On the other hand, getting it out there in general use will be the big challenge. I know a group that was helping to distribute generators that ran on a tropical plant. These could be self contained units and dropped in to an isolated settlement. I don't hear much about it these days. i wonder if these efforts to put technology in places with none can be effective in the long run. Perhaps if they help people get out of the poverty they live in now they will become obsolete. We'll see.
You raise a good issue issue, Naperlou, about the sustainability and support of these new technologies once developed and deployed. Do they need updating and maintenance to stay in working condition? If so, who's trained to fix and support them and where do they get replacement parts or fixes, if they are necessary. Hopefully the engineers and designers working on these types of innovations look at it from the complete lifecycle, from manufacture through maintinability, and in the context of the remote environments. You have to assume they do, but you never know.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Scott, I was thinking of less direct, more complicated modern energy harvesting methods. But you're totally right. The dung of animals that eat a diet full of grass and other fibrous plants has been burnt as fuel all over the world for thousands of years. You don't even have to be a farmer: Plains Indians burnt buffalo dung for that purpose.
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.
Designs that work within different realities, cultures, and resources ties into the "Societal Engineering" curriculum at Boston University, which was covered in a recent DN article. My son is a ME student there and I'm very impressed with their program. A recent group of students took a diagnostic unit they designed to Africa and discovered there are places where AA batteries are not available. Very invaluable experience for new engineers.
Not to sound harsh or cynical, but better sanitation leads to a larger population, further straining the carrying capacity of the land and increasing the vulnerability to disruptions in water, weather, harvests, etc. A friend who has done charity work in Africa has seen many "point solutions" actually make matters worse because a holisitic view was lacking.
@kenish: You're definitely right about the importance of a holistic view. However, I think the concern about overpopulation is misplaced. Belgium and the Netherlands have higher population densities than El Salvador, yet no one ever says that Belgium or the Netherlands are overpopulated. And many of the poorest African nations have lower population densities than the U.S. Preventing the deaths of 1.5 million children per year would be a good thing.
@Dave and Rob- All good comments! I wasn't speaking to population density, but rather "carrying capacity"...the ability of the land and infrastructure to support a population density. For example we have a very high population density here in So Cal, made possible by modern infrastructure. Remove the water supply, agriculture, distribution, and utilities and then see how many can subsist in our desert after 2-3 years. Most of Sub-Sahara Africa is beyond carrying capacity as evidenced by the famines, epidemics, and wars that plauge the area.
Saving 1.5 million lives is, of course, a fantasitic goal....but my previously mentioned friend has seen situations where the saved infants die from worse causes later in childhood or general suffering and poverty increase because the population becomes even more unsustainable. I hope the families, villages, and countries have a plan to feed and educate 1.5 million more people.
Again, this sounds incredibly harsh but my friend has really opened up my eyes to many well-meaning but ill-fated attempts at "aid" from developed countries. Of course there have been success stories too, such as the Rwanda coffee bike project and the Nestle boycott.
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.
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.
Too bad that Bill couldn't have invested a couple of shekels into his company to make WINDOWS the SEAMLESS operating system that it COULD HAVE BEEN, INSTEAD of the SERIOUSLY FLAWED program that it is, especially considering that it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in the near future!!!!
Basically a protected compost pile for excriment layered with straw or sawdustfor a year, then closed for a year to make sure no pathogens get out, or 2 years if you're squeemish, then used on the garden or whatever. Didn't need a grant or special materials or Bill Gates for this. Of course no one really makes any money off it either so it doesn't get much attention. jerry
The biggest problem with toilets is the use of water which is getting scarce, with costly infrastructure (piping), and disposal of the wastewater/ excrement. I heard of the toilet using vacuum to flush (similar to those in airplanes). The vacuum can be generated with a hand-powered pump.
- No water is used
- The waste is not diluted: the volume of waste is much reduced
- the toilet can be installed anywhere without the need for extra infrastructure
The challenge is to decompose the waste through an anaeorobic process (without oxygen). Alternatively an evacuation service can transfer the waste to a central location where the waste is processed. If possible methane from the excrement can be used for generating electricity.
Beth, great article. QUESTION: What's the most precious commodity on Earth today. Take a look.
GOLD-- $ 1614.00 per ounce
SILVER-- $28.00 per ounce
PLATINUM--$ 1472.00 per ounce
PALLADIUM--$ 606.00 per ounce
OIL-- $96.21 per barrel
RARE EARTH MATERIALS-- Variable
In my opinion it's the substance you mentioned in your post-- WATER. I read another fascinating article recently that basically indicates that in several countries our water table is quickly being reduced due to irrigation needed by farms. Our desert South West is included as a problematic area. I think the work done by the Gates' foundation is extremely important. I am somewhat surprised at the amount of money they allocated for the work but in today's economy nothing is reall cheap. Really appreciate you bringing this to light.
bobjengr, you are correct that water is probably the most precious commodity. What's interesting is that its monetary value is so disconnected from its worth. I'm not talking about third-world needs, but rather places such as the Great Lakes basin where there are water emergencies simply because of where people have chosen to expand to.
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