The toilet is undeniably one of the most important innovations in the history of mankind, and its lack can be fatal. Globally, an estimated 4,500 children each day die due to lack of access to decent sanitation. In India, the toll is an estimated at 500,000 people a year. So the Gates’ Foundation’s recently announced “Reinventing the toilet” initiative – which encourages universities across four continents to design a toilet that will function a) without piped water a sewage connection, b) without electricity and c) for a cost of less than 5 cents per day – is admirable.
But in the effort to promote universal access to water and sanitation, we can’t get distracted by the relative glamour of a technical design competition. Sadly, no perfect toilet for the poor will get us where we need to be. We also need an arsenal of non-technical strategies focused on:
1) Optimization of existing solutions
In urban slums across India, public and private community toilets account for the largest share (an estimated 50%) of sanitation infrastructure. However, a large number of these toilet blocks are poorly maintained; the infrastructure often falls into disrepair soon after construction. To increase access for a large number of families in a relatively short span of time – and at a fraction of the cost of creating the infrastructure for new toilets – we need to look at ways to ensure ongoing maintenance. These might include:
- A community ownership model in which community members are trained in usage and maintenance. In some cases, a local entrepreneur may take responsibility for maintenance as a way to earn a livelihood (thus incenting him to maintain the facility and his income.)
- Enforceable contracts with private operators who have an incentive for ensuring that facilities remain usable
- Flexible payment options such as monthly passes for families, instead of simply pay per use alone
2) “Software” (a.k.a., human) issues
Our experience working across slums in Ahmedabad, Delhi, Hyderabad and other cities suggests that general awareness of the relationship between sanitation and health doesn’t necessarily translate into behavior changes or willingness to pay for access to facilities. So one key to encouraging adoption of even the best designed toilet is understanding its real value as defined by the people who are supposed to start using it. A recent Water for People video makes this point explicit: While some families might construct a toilet for better health and productivity, others might be more interested in their daughters’ safety (midnight journeys to communal toilets potentially put them at risk.) Likewise, convenience during the monsoons and improved social status can be equally powerful motivators.
3) Contextualized design
Not even the best designed toilet technology will fit every situation. For instance, even in a well-established slum that has access to both water and sewage pipelines, individual homes may be extremely space constrained. (Where exactly do you fit a new toilet in a 12 square metre — or 129 square foot — home that is sandwiched between three other equally compact homes?) In Delhi, we have seen families in slums innovate and adapt existing solutions (constructing with reused bricks or cast off doors) to meet their exact requirements. The point is that families have idiosyncratic desires. Some want a more elaborate superstructure, while others want a partition wall etc. The risk is that if we just give them what we think is best for them, the response may be lukewarm at best. But when people are involved right from the start with every step including design, procurement of materials etc. that is when they truly consider the asset as their own and something they will use and maintain.
Reinventing the toilet – and encouraging adoption, usage and maintenance
Understanding real barriers, motivations and desires are critical predictors of the success of any effort to deploy comprehensive sanitation solutions across a community. Why? Because once people in a given community have bought in to the idea toilets, they tend to find ways to overcome both technological and financial barriers to use. A study on the Slum Networking Project in Ahmedabad found that slum dwellers were not only willing to pay for subsidized upgrades; once they had decided that a sanitation infrastructure and toilets were, in fact, important to them, they contributed several multiples of the government’s investment to the effort.
As the researchers and designers motivated by the Gates “Reinventing the toilet” initiative start their work, we hope that they’ll stay in close touch with the intended beneficiaries. Replicating and mass producing a variety of solutions that meet the real needs of users – especially as defined by users – would be a huge win. Meanwhile, those of us working to promote universal access to clean water and sanitation must keep our eyes not just on the competitions and prizes, but on the less glamorous work of encouraging adoption, usage and maintenance. Only when we’ve done that can we hope to make a dent in India’s ongoing water and sanitation crisis.
Learn more about the “Reinventing the toilet” competition.
Learn more about our work in water and sanitation.