High Tech Solutions Target the World’s Sanitation Crisis

Lack of effective sanitation contributes to widespread waterborne disease. A half-million children die of diarrhea every year.
Credit: Image provided by the Gates Foundation

What, there’s a sanitation crisis? If you’re reading this in Japan, North America, or Europe, you’re probably unaware of anything like a “crisis” in sanitation, of all things. The world has plenty of alarming events, all right, but a sanitation crisis?

But what if you really had to go, and there was no place to go? And there was no place for your neighbor to go, either. Or your neighbor’s neighbor. What then? In a matter of a few hours, you would certainly call that a crisis.

More than two billion people live today without access to functioning and effective sanitation. Some use plumbing that empties into open ditches without treatment. Some use pit latrines that quickly become dysfunctional and repulsive due to overloading and lack of servicing. Some have to defecate in open fields, woods, or city alleys, because there simply is no other place for them to go. A city of 2 million people may have sanitary sewers serving 200,000. Everyone else is on their own. Exposure when relieving oneself is of special concern for women and girls.

Improvements in water and wastewater infrastructure are needed, but these improvements that we take for granted in the developed world require lots of time and money to build, and lots of money and water to operate, any one of which can be in short supply for a developing country with an expanding population.

While multiple strategies are needed to address this crisis, one promising approach seeks to match new high-tech solutions to the age-old problem of effectively dealing with human waste. In 2011 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched an initiative to Reinvent the Toilet, posing a challenge to entrepreneurs and academics to produce prototypes of new toilets that could safely eliminate or beneficially recover human waste with an apparatus that is not connected to a dedicated water supply or a dedicated sewer.

Results to date are encouraging. Teams in several countries have prototypes under development, and at least three systems are in field testing with real-life users. Various technological pathways are being demonstrated, including electrochemical treatment, combustion, and biologically-based systems. 

Concurrent with these early trials, an international panel has been formed under the auspices of the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) to propose a set of performance standards that the new products should meet. The Panel on Sustainable Non-Sewered Sanitation Systems is co-led by the US and Senegal, and I participate on NRDC’s behalf on the US delegation to this panel. A wide range of issues are being addressed, including pathogen removal, air emissions, reliability, noise, odor, access for repair, and ease of use. A draft standard was first discussed in October and revised at a work session in Dakar in February. After further deliberations by the panel and concurrence by ISO membership, ISO publication of the final standard is expected by the summer of 2018. The standard can then be adopted or incorporated by reference into the public health and building codes of individual countries. 

An international standard can help “prime the pump” for the commercialization of high-tech sanitation devices by providing clear benchmarks for performance and testing to guide product developers.  An international standard also helps bring regulatory consistency to the global market, allowing production to ramp up to supply more than one country and economies of scale and cost savings to be realized. 

If successful, this effort has huge implications for public health in the developing world, but it could also be a game-changer for water and wastewater management in the US and other developed countries. Remote locations, such as state and national parks, are obvious possibilities for early installations. But as more states and communities contend with recurring drought and the uncertainties of climate change, more communities will be receptive to sanitation solutions that do not require drinking water to operate. In fact, production for commercial installations in developed countries may speed up the availability of more affordable units for the developing world. 

Plenty of questions and challenges remain, but on World Water Day in 2017, it’s good to know that solutions may be in sight.