Waterless toilets: a silver bullet for the sanitation crisis?

A total of $42 million will be invested into sanitation improvements across Africa and eight universities across the world have been challenged to to 'Reinvent the toilet'...

KIGALI, Rwanda, July 21, 2011 -- A total of $42 million will be invested into sanitation improvements across Africa in a bid to produce energy, fertilizer and fresh water from waste.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will invest this money across various initiatives, including funding eight universities across Africa, Asia, Europe and North America to 'Reinvent the toilet'.

The challenge is to design a "modular prototype for a full toilet facility" as a stand-alone unit without piped-in water, a sewer connection, or outside electricity, all for less than 5 cents a day.

Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands said its approach will involve drying human waste and then gasifying it using plasma technology, created by microwaves. A syngas will result from the process (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen) which will be fed to a solid oxide fuel cell stack for electricity generation.

Other investment programmes included WASH for Life, a collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) totaling $17 million. USAID and the foundation are each providing $8.5 million, to use USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures program to identify, test, and help scale evidence-based approaches to delivering water, sanitation, and hygiene services to the poor.

Furthermore, $12 million in funding will be provided to assist the African Development Bank to develop sanitation pilot projects that may include fecal sludge management services in sub-Saharan Africa. The goal is to serve up to 1.5 million urban poor who now lack access to sanitation services.

“Disease caused by unsafe sanitation accounts for roughly half of all hospitalisations in the developing world,” said Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, chair of the United Nations Secretary-General’s advisory board on water and sanitation. “This statistic is unacceptable, as is the fact that many decision makers remain reluctant to talk about sanitation, further stigmatising the topic, and perpetuating a crisis whose solutions are within our reach.”

Mamadou Dia, president of the African Water Association, said: "Across Africa, improved sanitation is an essential human need that we must take action to address. We welcome efforts to focus new attention, ideas and resources on this important issue.”

According to the World Health Organisation, improved sanitation can produce up to $9 for every $1 invested by increasing productivity, reducing health care costs, and preventing illness, disability, and early death.

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Watch the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation video on the toilet of the future here.

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