About 50 toilets occupied the plush lawns of New Delhi’s Taj Palace hotel over the weekend.
What were they doing there?
After the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put out a call for innovative and affordable toilets, more than 45 models from 15 countries were displayed this weekend at the Toilet Fair.
The call was first made in 2011 when the Seattle-based philanthropy fund laid the world’s sanitation crisis out on a table and summoned those who could reinvent the toilet to create safe and affordable sanitation.
At the time, the foundation handed out grants to 16 models presented by universities, nonprofit and private organizations, for next-generation loos.
In October, the foundation brought the challenge to India – a country where more than half the population defecates in the open.
On Saturday, six of the 100-plus proposals, received grants worth $2 million from the Gates Foundation and India’s state-run department of biotechnology. They will use the funding to design models, which will minimize the use of water and dependency on sewage systems – large parts of India lack underground sewage networks and access to piped water. They also hope to convert waste into fertilizer for plants.
For example, the team from U.K.-based Loughborough University, which won a grant in 2011, designed a lavatory that uses half a liter of water and transforms feces into biochar. Creating biochar involves a scientific process called hydrothermal carbonization, which coupled with basic “pressure cooking” converts not just urine or feces, but waste, such as sanitary napkins and discarded food into fertilizer.
“More population, more waste, more energy,” M. Sohail, a professor at Loughborough Univeristy and the team’s leader, said about India’s population of 1.21 billion and its corresponding excreta. Their model cost $30,000 to develop the prototype which generated a sample of biochar which actually smelled like coffee beans.
Prof. Sohail said in the long run, all stages of development will aim at bringing the cost of the household toilet system down.
For a country which the World Bank estimates lost more than 6% of its gross domestic product in 2006 because of poor sanitation facilities, toilets need to be built, before being reinvented.
India has 18 targets to achieve the United Nations’ eight millennium development goals. Number 10 on that list is reducing by half the proportion of people who don’t have access to sanitation facilities by 2015. The progress towards this objective, last assessed in 2013, had been marked slow.
According to a government survey released in 2013, nearly 68% of households in the countryside do not have access to toilets. The 2011 census, the latest year for which data is available, found that more Indians have access to mobile phones than they do to toilets. The findings also said the situation was grimmer for 33 million lower-caste Dalit households, with 75% defecating in the open.
The cities are better off, with 60% of homes having bathrooms, but are still plagued by problems of public urination.
Ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in, the state’s government launched a campaign to persuade people, especially men, not to pee in public. Violators, whom the government dubbed Su-Su Kumar [Pee-pee Kumar], had to pay a 200 rupee fine [about $3]for piddling in public.
In an attempt to discourage public urination, pictures of gods and goddesses are often nailed to walls in the city to keep the stench at bay.
Even where there are public conveniences, they are often badly managed and maintained meaning many prefer or have to go outside, leaving some women who do so vulnerable to attack.
Clarification: A previous version of this blog did not mention that Loughborough University received a grant in 2011.