At a glance
- In the developing world, an estimated 4.5 billion people practice open defecation or use facilities that do not safely dispose of human waste.
- Inadequate sanitation and hygiene are estimated to have caused more than half a million deaths from diarrhea alone in 2016.
- Safe sanitation is essential to a healthy and sustainable future for developing economies.
- The foundation focuses on accelerating innovations in non-sewered sanitation technology and service delivery, particularly in densely populated areas of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
We collaborate with government leaders, the private sector, and technologists to advance promising new toilet and waste treatment technologies, service delivery models, and policies with the greatest potential to revolutionize sanitation standards and practices at the local and national levels. Our core initiatives include:
- Promoting policies and practical steps that governments can take now to establish safer sanitation through fecal sludge management—a sanitation strategy that does not require sewers
- Investing, alongside governments in our priority geographies, in accelerated adoption of safely managed citywide sanitation, particularly focused on slums and informal settlements that are typically underserved
- Investing in technologies, such as the reinvented toilet and the omni-processor, that can radically change the way municipalities and households manage human waste affordably, on a large scale, and with little or no need for water and electricity
- Conducting research to help the sanitation sector develop data and evidence about what works.
The burden of inadequate sanitation—and, therefore, the potential for progress—is greatest in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, so we have focused our efforts in those regions.
- Sub-Saharan Africa. As African cities and towns continue to grow, especially within informal settlements, governments are acknowledging the need for innovative sanitation solutions that are easier to deploy and less expensive to operate than sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants.
- South Asia. Sanitation is a significant challenge for most South Asian countries, but many are now aggressively pursuing inclusive national sanitation strategies that emphasize safe sanitation. India, in particular, provides a global model for sanitation reform through the government’s Swachh Bharat Mission and a growing network of sanitation operators and utilities that are implementing fecal sludge management.
- China. The Chinese government’s Toilet Revolution, which promises the rapid scaling up of safe sanitation approaches for the country, presents a strong opportunity for the adoption of new technologies within the rural and public toilet markets in China, particularly in areas facing water scarcity issues.
Accelerating the development of safe non-sewered sanitation systems and technologies is our top priority within the water, sanitation, and hygiene continuum because it is where we believe we can catalyze the biggest change, by making investments that other partners are unlikely to make. We acknowledge the critical role of clean water and hygiene initiatives, as well as efforts to end open defecation, in improving global health outcomes. We applaud the efforts of other organizations that focus on these areas.
Areas of focus
Flush toilets and central sewer systems are considered by many consumers and governments around the world to be the gold standard for safe sanitation. However, decentralized sanitation systems that incorporate technologies such as the reinvented toilet present alternatives that can be safer and more resilient, cost-effective, and environmentally-friendly.
Since 2011, our foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge has worked with leading engineers and scientists to design low-cost toilets that do not require connections to the electrical grid, water supply, or sewers. Several designs that debuted at the Reinvented Toilet Expo in 2018 are now commercially available. These toilets work using internal combustion and chemical treatment systems, and they can be set up in areas that are hard to reach with traditional infrastructure. They can deliver the same benefits as toilets connected to sewers, plus wholly new benefits that include the removal of human pathogens and generation of usable water and electricity. Some reinvented toilet models provide sanitation for single homes, while others are designed for public or shared toilet facilities that serve communities.
The foundation has also pioneered new fecal sludge treatment technologies and funded new types of pit latrine emptying solutions so communities can make existing sanitation systems safer for people and more affordable for private companies, public utilities, and municipalities.
Providing citywide, inclusive sanitation requires new service models and market structures, as well as different approaches and technologies to serve different community needs and settings. We are working with local governments, service providers, and community-based organizations in select cities to foster environments that support the use of community- responsive, non-sewered sanitation products, delivery methods, and business models. We see particular promise in models that rely on public-sector agencies to provide regulation and oversight, and that allow private-sector providers to deliver sanitation services and profit from byproducts that have market value, including energy and fertilizer. This is a sustainable partnership model that offers natural incentives for innovation and long-term delivery of safe sanitation to communities.
We also support initiatives that help stimulate market and community demand for improved sanitation in order to accelerate the development of productive sanitation market conditions. Part of this effort involves working with sanitation providers and partners to help them adopt more evidence-based practices so they can deliver sanitation services that meet people’s needs, especially the needs of women and girls. For example, in India our work includes support for a national campaign to promote incremental shifts in social norms around toilet use that will lead to higher demand for better sanitation products and services as they become available.
We work to improve the policy and regulatory environment for sanitation through partnerships across all levels of governments, multilateral organizations, community-based nongovernmental organizations, service providers, and others. With our network of partners, we advocate for policies and international standards that set guidelines for safe sanitation services at the local and national levels, as well as for adequate funding for these systems to ensure healthy outcomes for people.
As part of this work, we support initiatives that can help accelerate gender equality for women and girls. These include initiatives that can generate gender-disaggregated data to inform the development of programs and products that increase women’s participation in sanitation decision-making at the household and policy level.
We invest in research and evaluation to understand the effectiveness of various sanitation approaches. We use this information to report on our progress, assess the impact of our grantmaking, and share lessons that we learn with our partners. This information is vital for helping national governments meet their targets under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including goal 6.2, which calls for ending open defecation and providing adequate, equitable, and safely managed sanitation for all people by 2030.
Why focus on water, sanitation, and hygiene?
Unsafe sanitation is a massive problem that is becoming more urgent as our global population increases and trends such as water scarcity and urbanization intensify. About 4.5 billion people—more than half the world’s population—either practice open defecation or use unsafe sanitation facilities and services. To be effective, sanitation must be carefully managed at all stages, from waste collection and containment to transport and treatment. If there are gaps or breaks at any stage, harmful human waste flows into surface waters that people use for drinking and bathing and onto fields where children play and people live.
Poor sanitation, which is widely accepted as a chief contributor to waterborne diseases, causes the deaths of more than 1,200 children under age 5 every day--more than from AIDS, measles, and tuberculosis combined. Inadequate sanitation and hygiene caused more than half a million deaths from diarrhea alone in 2016. Despite the indisputable connection between poor sanitation and human health risks, sanitation models and services aren’t improving quickly enough. According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, sanitation rated as “safe for people” increased by only 3 percent worldwide over the past five years.
Creating sanitation infrastructure and public services that work for everyone and keep human waste out of the environment is difficult—and it isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. The toilets, sewers, and wastewater treatment systems that made sense in the past aren’t necessarily the best solutions for the future, especially in poor countries. These types of systems require vast amounts of land, energy, and water and are extremely expensive to build, maintain, and operate, even by the standards of wealthy countries. They are particularly difficult to introduce, as new infrastructure, into dense urban settings and informal settlements, where the impact of unsafe sanitation on people is the greatest.
Solving the sanitation challenge in the developing world will require breakthrough innovations in technologies as well as systems that are practical, cost-effective, and replicable on a large scale. Building and proving these new models is difficult, but the potential benefits to human health and dignity and economic growth are enormous. These benefits include increased human productivity, improved infrastructure, new jobs, and expanded entrepreneurial opportunities.
Lack of proper sanitation costs the world an estimated US$223 billion every year. At the same time, every dollar spent on sanitation is estimated to provide at least five dollars in economic return. And market research shows that the annual market value for new sanitation technologies designed for low-resource settings, such as the reinvented toilet, could potentially reach more than US$6 billion globally by 2030.
In 2018, we joined with global innovators, development banks, corporate partners, sanitation utilities, and governments to host the first Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing.
Read more about the impacts of sanitation on people and communities.