Most of the world doesn't think about toilets but in remote areas that have little water, and no sanitary systems toilets can mean life and death. In many areas of the developing world human waste enters into the water system resulting in disease.
Far to many parents in the world know the heartbreak of burying a child because of diarrhea, 1.5 million children pass away each year from what in the developed world is considered a tummy flu. Those deaths come from the water supply. Drinking water is needed for life but in areas where there is no sanitation system water also means contamination.
“No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet,” Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation’s Global Development Program said in her speech at AfricaSan, the third African Conference on Sanitation and Hygiene, organized by the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW). “But it did not go far enough. It only reached one-third of the world. What we need are new approaches. New ideas. In short, we need to reinvent the toilet.”
Enter in the Bill and Melinda Gates's Foundation challenge for the world's leading universities to remake the toilet. Eight of those schools including the University of Toronto were rewarded with a grant close to $400,000 to design an off the grid commode.
The mission is to make a toilet that is able to run without water, sewage systems or electricity cheaply. Those are high stakes but there's more, it also has to be self-contained with human waste going in and clean water, carbon dioxide, mineral ash (for fertilizer) and energy comes out.
The announcement of the grant took place in Rwanda during the AfricaSan conference.
Professor Yu-Ling Cheng, Director of the Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN) at the University of Toronto, will be leading an international team.
"It is a fascinating problem," said Professor Cheng in a press release. "Those of us in the West don't give toilets much thought. But there are 2.6 billion people in the world who don't have access to safe and affordable sanitation. Lack of clean drinking water is important," said Cheng. "But the lack of a way to safely deal with human waste is even more pressing."
If the toilet can be made it would be used around the world, not just in developing communities believes Professor Cheng.
"It is a developing world problem," said Cheng, "but, really, if we could make a toilet that didn't require water, sewerage and power, and we add a splash of First World stylishness, who wouldn't want to use it in Toronto."