Gates fund to spur 'toilet revolution' in China

Updated: 2013-08-23 06:26


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BEIJING - The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) on Thursday extended its global "toilet revolution" campaign to China, kicking off a competition with grants of $5 million to encourage Chinese talent to reinvent the toilet.

The Reinvent The Toilet Challenge-China (RTTC-China) will fund research teams in China to develop a "next-generation toilet," which the foundation defines as waterless, hygienic, not requiring a sewer connection or electricity and costing less than five US cents per user, per day.

Li Zili, deputy director of research and development (R&D) at the BMGF Beijing Representative Office said China's R&D capability was growing fast and its innovation could be adopted worldwide.

The toilet challenge is a part of the foundation's Water, Sanitation & Hygiene program. The BMGF has been advocating a revolutionary toilet for 21st century, its top priority in radical and sustainable improvements in sanitation in the developing world, since 2011.

Dr. Doulaye Kone, a senior officer of the program, said "the need for better sanitation in the developing world is clear."

While people in the developed world take flush toilets for granted, research shows that 40 percent of the world's population - 2.5 billion people - practice open defecation or lack adequate sanitation facilities.

Even in urban areas, where household and communal toilets are more prevalent, 2.1 billion people use toilets connected to septic tanks that are not safely emptied or use other systems that discharge raw sewage into open drains or surface waters.

"The consequences can be devastating for human health as well as the environment," Dr. Doulaye Kone said.

Poor sanitation contributes to 1.5 million child deaths from diarrhea each year. Chronic diarrhea can also hinder child development and impede the absorption vaccines, he said

The toilets, sewers, and waste water treatment systems in the developed require vast amounts of land, energy, and water. They are expensive to build and maintain.

"This is why the next-generation toilet should be waterless. Hygienic toilets do not require a sewer connection or electricity, " Dr. Doulaye Kone said.

According to Zhang Yong, a senior official of the disease control and prevention department of China's National Health and Family Planning Commission, despite significant progress in building hygienic toilets in rural China since 2004, about 30 percent of rural Chinese did not have access to such toilets by 2012.

"China aims to raise the percentage of rural residents using hygienic toilets to 75 percent by 2015 and 85 percent by 2020," said Zhang, adding that the government was ready and willing to promote nationwide any "suitable" toilets coming out of RTTC-China.

In August 2012, three prototypes from the first round of grants were selected as winners of the challenge: a solar-powered toilet that generates electricity; a toilet that extracts biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water from human waste; and a toilet that sanitizes feces and urine, recovering resources and clean water.

Dr. Doulaye Kone said funding research to invent new sanitation products was just the beginning. The goal of the foundation was to make these products available and affordable for ordinary people. The foundation will also work with partnerships in manufacturing and commercializing.

As to the prospects of the next-generation toilets, Kone said, "one should not underestimate changes new technology can make."