Gates Foundation pushes re-invention of the toilet

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced that it was shifting its emphasis in water and sanitation efforts to push for a radical re-invention of the toilet.

The Gates Foundation today formally announced its new strategy at a sanitation conference in Kigali, Rwanda (though the gist of the toilet re-invention project was leaked a week ago by Germany’s Die Welt).

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, head of development for the Gates Foundation, made the announcement of $42 million in new grants devoted to the cause of water and sanitation in a speech at a meeting organized by the African Ministers’ Council on Water.

Here’s the Gates Foundation’s amusing video clip making the case for us to get our s#!t together and invent a new toilet:

Mathews Burwell said their focus is on the toilet because it is a 200-year-old technology that helped spark a revolution in public health and hygiene, but now needs updating:

Not only is using the world’s precious water resources to flush and transport human waste not a smart or sustainable solution, it has simply proven to be too expensive for much of the world. What we need are new approaches.

As the Seattle Times’ Kristi Heim notes in her report today on the Gates Foundation’s push for a new toilet:

About 40 percent of people still have no access to safe, sanitary toilets, and 1 billion practice open defecation, according to the World Health Organization. Food and water tainted with human waste cause diseases that lead to about 1.5 million deaths of children a year.

Heim reports that, in addition to many grants given to scientific teams around the world to encourage pursuit of a waterless, renewable energy toilet, the Gates Foundation is also working on this with former Microsoft science guy Nathan Myhrvold and his creative inventors at Bellevue-based Intellectual Ventures (when they aren’t fighting over patents anyway).

The Guardian also reported on the Gates Foundation’s expansion of its sanitation program noting that the philanthropy intends this to be just the beginning of an effort aimed at taking the lead in this arena:

The new grant money will bring the amount the Gates foundation has spent on water and sanitation over the past five years to $265m, but its director of water, sanitation and hygiene, Frank Rijsberman, expects this amount to grow significantly over the next few years. “We expect to be the key funders for innovation in this sector,” he said.

Both Mathews Burwell and Rijsberman noted that many projects and billions of dollars have been spent on efforts to improve access to clean water around the world while sanitation, they said, has largely been neglected.

The move should be welcomed by many of those who have long urged the world’s largest philanthropy to take a bigger role in these massive twin problem (afflicting an estimated 2.5 billion people) of lack of access to clean water or safe sanitation.

It likely will also be criticized for appearing, at least superficially, as yet another Gates techno-fix thrown at a complex problem.



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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.