To Seriously Improve Global Health, Reinvent the Toilet
The toilet is a magnificent thing. Invented at the turn of the 19th century, the flush version has vastly improved human life.
The toilet has been credited with adding a decade to our longevity. The sanitation system to which it is attached was voted the greatest medical advance in 150 years by readers of the British Medical Journal.
Unfortunately it is an impractical luxury for about two thirds of the world’s 7 billion people because it relies on connections to water and sewerage systems that must be built and maintained at great expense. About 40% of all people, an estimated 2.6 billion of them, have no access to even a minimally sanitary facility, according to the World Health Organisation.
The result is illness and early death. Diarrhoeal diseases, including those linked to improper sanitation, are the second largest killer in the developing world, taking 2 million lives annually. A cholera outbreak in Haiti, which has so far killed more than 7,000, apparently began when sewage from a base (housing Nepalese peacekeepers) contaminated a water source.
Vaccines and medicines against these diseases help. But the ultimate solution is to address the problem at its root.
Doing so requires reimagining the toilet. First, new designs are required for toilets that are hygienic, pleasant, and cheap to make and use, and that work without being connected to a grid. Because such a facility would have to be periodically emptied, ideally excretions would be treated not as waste but either recycled on site or turned into profitable resources.