The Last Flush: The Toilet Revolution Should Start with Us

Venancia Ashanga in his composting toilet, a project his community executed in collaboration with Amazon Partnerships Foundation.

Kudos to the Gates Foundation for putting a spotlight on something most of us in the developed world never think about: the lowly crapper.

The recent Reinvent the Toilet competition challenged some of the world’s most innovative designers to come up with a toilet that doesn’t use water, cause pollution, or cost more than five cents a day to operate. In the next few years, the Gates Foundation plans to test and roll out the commodes to the neediest regions in the developing world, ushering in a toilet revolution.

It’s an outstanding effort by an organization that has the resources to execute it. Yet there is a risk: the invention of a new toilet “for the developing world” could send the message that we in the West are content to continue flushing our bodily waste into the world’s drinking water supply while foisting new technology on people who haven’t asked for it.

So how to turn risk into opportunity? Let’s start the revolution from our own bathrooms first.

At first blush, this suggestion seems counterintuitive. The world sanitation problem is enormous and indisputable: 2.5 billion people have no adequate way to eliminate, according to the UN. More than a million children die every year from diarrhea and other diseases that could be prevented with better waste treatment.

But contrary to the Gates Foundation’s rationale that toilets have not gotten a makeover since they first came into widespread use among the middle-class in the mid 1800s, EcoSan, an international society of scientists and researchers, and others have been developing and promoting a variety of ecological designs for years. They run the gamut from urine-separating composting toilets to the simple “PeePoo” bag.

Some of these projects have been successful and widely implemented, but wholesale adoption has proven elusive. Studies  (here and here) from years of sanitation projects indicate that the root of the problem is not primarily technological but cultural and social.

Having spent much more time than I ever could have imagined talking with people in the Ecuadorian Amazon about where they make their “deposits,” and following their lead after a long hike into the jungle, I witnessed this myself. Indigenous communities we worked with through Amazon Partnerships Foundation usually identified clean water and sanitation as the two most urgent priorities. Yet despite the fact that most did not have sufficient water to flush a toilet, much less a safe, non-contaminating way to treat excrement, many of them weren’t interested in ecological alternatives.

For better or worse, many communities are moving toward “modernization” and “urbanization,” which mean they want the kind of toilet people see on TV. For many, the conventional toilet is a status symbol.

What would happen if eco-toilets became the next It product, with aggressive marketing campaigns in the north and elite corners of the Global South? What if eco-toilets were installed in millions of U.S homes and waste water treatment plants converted into some other twenty-first century use? What if Home Depot commercials advertised sleek water-free toilets? What if subsistence farmers found eco-toilets when they visited a government office in Bogotá or Nairobi to fill out paperwork? What if new high rises in Jakarta were constructed with toilets you never have to flush?

How long would it take people in urban slums and poor rural villages to start asking aid workers how they could get some of those toilets too?

Or put another way: when was the last time international development organizations had to hold workshops in communities to convince people to buy TVs or cell phones? People demand these products and purchase them in part because they make them feel included in society.

If the Gates Foundation can make eco-toilets as sexy and ubiquitous as consumer electronics, at a more affordable price, we’ll have a real revolution on our hands.

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3 thoughts on “The Last Flush: The Toilet Revolution Should Start with Us

  1. Here you have a very strong point. Living in nicaragua, our latrine in the back of the garden needs to be renewed. My wife points to the new Water Closet that our neighbours have installed recently: she want one too. (water is rationed to a few hours per day in the dry season) I can talk what I want, but she does not like a waterless alternative.

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