Water advocate questions why the Gates Foundation is so stuck on the toilet

Marla Smith-Nilson and friends

Marla Smith-Nilson is director of Seattle-based Water 1st International and has worked for decades trying to improve access in the developing world to clean water and safe, healthy sanitation.

Smith-Nilson said she welcomes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation decision to get more involved in water and sanitation issues. But she is concerned that their primary interest in re-inventing the toilet is focused too much on the simple fix. Here are Smith-Nilson’s thoughts:

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Today, 2.5 billion people lack access to both a safe, convenient water supply and a sanitary toilet – a situation that stems from but also drives poverty, illness and inequality.

As someone who has worked for 20 years on water and sanitation needs in the developing world, I welcome the Gates Foundation’s increased interest and investment in addressing these twin problems.

But I am concerned with their emphasis on reinventing the toilet — or with any solution that is based primarily on solving the water and sanitation problems by virtue of a technological advance. I’m an engineer by training and hardly opposed to technological progress.

The fundamental challenge in water and sanitation is not so much a technological hurdle to overcome as it is a systems problem that simply cannot be resolved by trying to fix any one part in isolation.

A waterless and/or energy-recovering toilet could be of revolutionary benefit. This appears to be the primary aim of the Gates Foundation’s strategy in this arena. They have provided grants to other aspects of water and sanitation, but the descriptions of these projects are broadly stated and vague.

What I’ve learned, and what we’ve tried to put into practice at Water 1st, after two decades working on these issues is that an integrated approach to water and sanitation is required for it to be sustainable, economical and equitable. We have learned, for example, that frequently the best toilet project has to start as a water project. The poor have the right to set their own priorities, too. Improving sanitation and hygiene requires behavior change and creating that change begins with a shared set of values. Based on our experience, poor people value clean water first.

Another over-arching problem with many of the water and sanitation programs already out there is the lack of adequate evaluation. If the Gates Foundation truly wishes to leverage its already substantial influence in the field, I would encourage the organization to back efforts aimed at creating an independent rating system aimed at separating the wheat from the chaff. Today, many organizations “fill out their own report cards,” which may explain why there has been so little overall progress made in this field despite a plethora of groups working on these problems.

Many well-intended organizations have gone into poor communities to install a water pump only to find it years later inoperable and abandoned. The Gates Foundation has established an exciting technological and scientific challenge with criteria aimed at creating a new toilet that can operate inexpensively (though five cents a day per person may still be too much), without energy inputs or the need for water use.

The Gates Foundation’s vision of a new toilet could become the cornerstone of a revolutionary improvement in water and sanitation. Or it could become just another western contraption that eventually falls into disuse and disrepair, another monument to the failed notion of the simple fix.

 

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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]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.