Originally published in The Environmental Magazine
If you’d like to create a lively dinner conversation, ask those seated around the table what they feel is humanity’s most important invention. Your guests might mention wheels, smartphones, engines, computers, and the printing press. However, a convincing argument can be made for a relatively simple piece of technology that the conversation will likely pass over; the toilet.
This invention has done more to improve public health, and human life in general, than almost any other.
Unfortunately, in spite of the toilet’s ubiquity in America and Europe, basic sanitation is often seriously lacking, or even non-existent in the developing world. (Note that when the world sanitation appears in this essay, it refers to management systems for human feces and urine). Though the topic of sanitation is not as pleasant to speak about as clean energy or reforestation, it desperately needs attention.
It is generally estimated that over 2 billion of the world’s population (Believed to be around 7.7 billion in October 2019) do not have access to adequate excreta disposal. This deficiency creates massive problems for both humans and the environment.
When there is no system available for processing waste, it is often dumped into rivers and oceans. This practice has a massive negative impact on both aquatic biota, and any humans that rely on said rivers and oceans as a source of water or protein (via fishing). Even using water from a feces-polluted river to irrigate crops can spread disease. Unfortunately, an estimated 10% of the world’s population regularly consumes crops irrigated in this manner.
Although human waste will eventually decompose if buried, it is often simply deposited on the ground. In addition to creating an awful oder, this waste can pose a significant threat to human health in many different ways, some of which are non-obvious. For example, if flies land on the feces, and then land on exposed food, they can transfer pathogens from the former to the latter.
Along with the routes described above, health workers commonly refer to the primary ways in which human waste transmits disease, as the five F’s:
- Fields (Irrigated with waste water)
- Fluids (Rivers and oceans)
The threat that fecally transmitted diseases pose to public health is massive. The list of infections that feces can transmit includes diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, and polio. Diarrhea alone, caused by inadequate sanitation, is one of the world’s leading causes of infant mortality. Dealing with a sickened child places a massive burden on families in the developing world, who are often struggling to get by even when unencumbered by disease. Additionally, a lack of access to adequate restrooms often prevents girls in developing countries from attending school.
As huge as the world’s sanitation problem is, governments and private organizations are taking significant measures to tackle it.
One of the most basic ways in which health organizations can improve sanitation is by providing alternatives to open defecation. This practice (defecating on open patches of ground) is unfortunately still practiced by nearly 1 billion people. A simple, short term solution to issue of open defecation, is the pit latrine. A pit latrine is essentially a hole dug into the ground, usually surrounded by an outhouse for privacy. Though they are a massive step up from open defecation, pit latrines are often not a sustainable solution, as they become full after a relatively limited period of time. At that point, someone must dig a new pit. And in certain locations, such as urban environments, pit latrines are simply not an option.
Fortunately, better alternatives to the pit latrine are available. Numerous non-profits are working hard to implement modern sanitation in the developing world, and there is an ever-growing effort to innovate new forms of toilets and waste processing systems.
In the world of sanitation innovation, some exciting developments are taking place. Many stem from Bill Gates’ interest in the topic. He has provided funding for extensive waste-processing research and development. This funding has led to the invention of the Nano Membrane Toilet and the Janicki Omniprocessor, a large scale waste treatment machine that runs off of electricity generated by the incineration of human feces.
Some innovators are even starting to use human waste as a commodity to generate profit, as described in a recent Fast Company article.
Other organizations install tried and true technologies in impoverished areas, instead of trying to create new ones. They also provide education and training that will improve sanitation practices. One of the largest is the World Toilet Organization (WTO). The WTO works with collaborators in dozens of countries to improve sanitation, and created World Toilet Day in 2001 to draw attention to the issue. As flashy and exciting as the high tech toilet innovators may be, more traditional organizations such as the WTO are quietly making tremendous progress.
If you would like to help speed the world’s transition to safe, sustainable sanitation, there are many ways in which you can do so. One of the best is by simply drawing attention to the issue. Although the topic of sanitation has an understandably negative stigma, it is one of the most pressing issues facing the world today, and could greatly benefit from the funding that increased global awareness would generate. If you would like to do more still, you can donate to sanitation organizations such as the WTO.