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Sylvia Mathews Burwell: Reinventing the Toilet

July 19, 2011
Prepared remarks by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President, Global Development Program

Thank you for that kind introduction.

President Molewa, honorable ministers, partners, colleagues, and distinguished guests - thank you for inviting me to speak with you this afternoon.

It’s a privilege to be in Kigali for this important conference organized by the African Ministers’ Council on Water. I’m inspired to look out on this room and see so many government leaders, scientists, and other professionals all joined around the common cause of improving access to sanitation across the continent.

The third AfricaSan conference, the largest gathering of sanitation experts and practitioners to date, is testimony to Africa’s continued commitment to making a better life for all of Africa’s people through improved sanitation.

I’d like to congratulate Rwanda for recently exceeding the UN Millennium Development Goal on sanitation, providing more than 50 percent of Rwandans with adequate sanitation.

I hope we can all use this gathering to learn from Rwanda’s success as well as from the progress that’s being made against this key development challenge across Africa and the world.

Let me begin today not in the present, but in the past. I’d like to bring you back more than 200 years to 1775.

In America, George Washington was leading the Continental Army in the first battles of the Revolutionary War.

In Europe, a precocious young composer named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was composing his first violin concertos. 

In London, a talented Scottish mathematician and watchmaker named Alexander Cummings was turning his energies to solving a major crisis of his time: improving sanitation.

He believed there was a better way to handle waste than the chamber pot and open trenches of his day. 

In 1775, thanks to his ingenuity, Cummings became the first person to patent a “water closet” or what we know as the flush toilet.

His invention helped spark a sanitary revolution of waterborne sewage systems that have saved hundreds of millions of lives by keeping communities safe from diseases. 

More than 200 years have passed since Cummings’s invention. And a lot has changed.

Innovation has touched nearly every part of our lives.

What was once seemingly impossible is now possible.

Automobiles and airplanes.

Electric lights and television.

Smart phones and smarter computers.

We’ve developed life-saving vaccines.

Looked inside the smallest molecules.

Glimpsed at the farthest stars. 

But more 200 years later, one thing hasn’t really changed:

The toilet.

The sanitation solution that Cummings helped invent–water closets connected to sewer systems – is effectively what we still have today.

And we’ve paid the price for this neglect.

More than 2.6 billion people - 40 percent of the world’s population – don’t have access to these basic sanitation services that many of us take for granted.

This includes more than 1 billion people who still defecate out in the open.

It also includes over a billion people, many of them in rural areas, who use latrines that are dangerous to their communities and the environment. 

Another 2 billion people who live in cities and towns use sanitation services in which waste is not disposed of safely and ends up back in their communities.

The result is tragic.

The second largest killer of children under five is diarrheal disease, which is responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million children every year, more than AIDS and malaria combined. Most of these deaths could be prevented with proper sanitation, combined with safe drinking water and better hygiene.

Let me repeat that. More than 1 million children die each year for lack of a basic technology which is now more than 200 years old.

Hundreds of millions more suffer from sanitation-related illnesses which have a negative impact on the developing world’s health sectors and economies. At any one time, half of all hospital beds in developing countries are filled with people suffering from water and sanitation-related diseases, and some 443 million school days are lost each year due to associated illnesses.

No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet. But it did not go far enough. It only reached one-third of the world.

And yet, this is a problem that no one wants to talk about. Though common to everyone, bodily waste is a great unmentionable, a four-letter word discussed in whispers if at all.

Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, chair of the United Nations Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, maybe captured it best when he said, “The lack of sanitation endured by 2.6 billion people is a hidden international scandal.”

It should come as no surprise that of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals sanitation is the most overlooked and forgotten.  An “orphan” goal, as Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has called it. At current rates of progress, the world will miss the MDG sanitation target – to halve the number of people without access to basic sanitation -- by almost 1 billion people.

So why can’t we solve this problem?

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, asking tough questions like these are at the heart of our work.

We are guided by the values of the Gates family, who believe that every life has equal worth. We believe that a child’s birthplace shouldn’t pre-determine whether they will have access to health and opportunity. To that end, the foundation is involved in a range of health efforts in Africa, from vaccines, AIDS, and malaria to mother and child health. And in our development program, which I lead, we focus on areas with the potential for high-impact, sustainable solutions like farming, financial services and improved sanitation that can help hundreds of millions of people pull themselves out of poverty and hunger.

Billions of dollars have been poured into constructing toilets, sewers, and wastewater treatment facilities in the developing world. Still, due to rapid population growth in sub-Saharan Africa, there are now more people without access to improved sanitation in this region than ever before.

What’s clear to us is that existing sanitation solutions – ones based on 200-year-old ideas –are not meeting the challenges we face.

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.

New ideas.

In short, we need to “Reinvent the Toilet”.

It should be a toilet for the 21st century – a toilet for the billions whose needs are not being met.

It should be a toilet that is pleasant to use and makes safe sanitation available simply and cheaply to people everywhere. It should save children’s lives by controlling disease. It should eradicate the worst job in the world, that of the latrine emptier. It should bring safety and dignity to all people, especially to women and children.

And most importantly, it must be a toilet created in partnership with the people who will use it.

This will not be easy. It will demand innovation. Not just new technologies, but new ways of thinking.

In this case, it will require turning an age-old problem on its head. We all view human waste as, well, “waste” and nothing more -- something to be flushed away, kept in the dark, not talked about – a taboo. But human waste actually contains valuable and recyclable materials such as water, energy, urea, salts, and minerals.

What if we viewed waste as a valuable resource to be tapped?

What if human waste powered lights and homes?

What if it helped farmers grow more crops?

What if it generated potable water?

This is not just a dream. It’s happening today.

In February, we invited more than 20 leading universities worldwide to submit their ideas of how to realize our vision of a Reinvented Toilet.

There were a few ground rules.  We asked that they develop a stand-alone facility without piped-in water, a sewerage connection, or outside electricity. Finally, it must have a total cost (including capital, operation, and maintenance) of just a few pennies per day per person.

A tough challenge. But we received many impressive proposals for how to achieve this goal.

Today I’m pleased to announce that the foundation will be funding eight teams in the first year of the challenge to Re-invent the Toilet for a total of $3 million.

Many of their ideas are revolutionary. Let me share a few of them.

The University of Toronto is developing a toilet that turns human waste into ash through rapid dehydration and smoldering and also produces potable water.

Stanford University, Berkeley and MIT, in collaboration with start-up NGO Sanergy, are designing a toilet that converts human waste into soil-improving biochar. It will soon be tested in Nairobi’s slums.

Delft University of Technology is proposing to zap human waste into synthetic gas with micro waves.

This is just the beginning. We’re also funding research into systems that use wind, algae, and anaerobic micro-digesters to consume human waste and generate biodiesel, electricity, heat, methane, fertilizer, and water for homes and entire villages.

In all, we are announcing more than $41 million in grants to spark new innovations in sanitation.

At the same time, we know that there are no silver bullets.

To address the needs of the 2.6 billion people who don’t have access to safe sanitation, we not only must reinvent the toilet, we also must find safe, affordable and sustainable ways to capture, treat, and recycle human waste. Most importantly, we must work closely with the local communities we aim to serve to develop lasting sanitation solutions that best meet their needs.

That’s why a large part of the foundation’s work will continue to support efforts to raise awareness in poor communities of the consequences of inadequate sanitation – and empower them to take charge of their own solutions using existing technologies.  This approach, known widely as “Community Led Total Sanitation,” is a promising approach to stimulating demand for safe sanitation services and ending open defecation. But we must find ways – and we are engaging with a range of existing and prospective partners to do this – to bring this approach to scale while achieving 100 percent open defecation-free communities that last, all at an affordable cost to households, communities and governments.

Success is not reaching hundreds of thousands of people. It’s reaching hundreds of millions of people.

But we don’t have the answers yet to reach this goal.

And, more importantly, we cannot do it alone.

While the foundation’s resources may seem large, we are all too aware that they are no more than a drop in the bucket compared to the huge challenges facing governments and civil society to deliver sanitation services.

What we are pledging today is to be your partner in achieving the goals of the UN’s new 5 Year Drive to Sustainable Sanitation that is being launched on the African continent this week.

We are ready to offer our support, our funding, the energy and ideas of our staff, and the creativity and innovation that exist here in Africa to help Reinvent a Toilet and scale up existing sanitation technologies both in Africa and beyond.

Africa was able to leapfrog landlines and go straight to using mobile phones, jumpstarting mobile banking and other innovations that are often more advanced than what’s available in the United States or Europe.  Now Africa is poised to leapfrog traditional sewage systems and reinvent the toilet in ways that will revolutionize sanitation across the planet.

Working together, we firmly believe that reinventing a long-lasting, safe, and sustainable answer to the world’s sanitation needs is not just necessary, but within reach.

I started this talk by bringing you back 200 years to the story of first inventor of the toilet. Let me leave you today with a story of some present-day inventors to explain why I’m so optimistic about the future of sanitation.

In e-Thekwini, South Africa, a growing metro area with more than 3.6 million people, many strides have been made in delivering sanitation services to the poor townships outside the city. But a significant number of people, about 15 percent of the population, still don’t have access to adequate sanitation.

Building a modern sewage system would require lots of expensive infrastructure and use a lot of water – both resources that are in short supply. But the University of Kwazulu Natal is leading an effort to find cheaper, more environmentally-sound solutions to deliver sanitation to this community.  The enterprising team of researchers and students has already helped scientists around the world develop a better understanding of the chemical, physical and mechanical properties of human waste and how it might be recovered and recycled.  Now this team, one of the eight recipients of the Reinvent the Toilet grants, is working with their local municipality to design a community toilet that can turn waste into clean water and energy.

It’s an inspiring story. Not simply because of the team’s creativity and innovation, but also because the team is driven by an age-old desire to imagine a better world – a world where no child dies needlessly from sanitation-related diseases and where all people can live healthy and dignified lives.

It’s this vision of the future that brought us all to Kigali today. Let us act together now to make it reality.

Thank you.

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