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Editor's Note: In this post, Ammar Fawzi, Global WASH Advisor with GOAL, discusses the prospect of using smell-cancelling technology to combat global sanitation challenges in the future.

I recently attended the Global Toilet Business Innovation Summit hosted by The Toilet Board Coalition in Mumbai, India. The summit brought together key players from across the sanitation sector, but what was especially refreshing to see was the significant presence of the private sector – a sector often spoken of as the key to achieving success at scale, yet rarely actually in attendance at such summits. The range of the private sector attendees was broad, including large multi-nationals such as Unilever, Kimberly Clark Corporation, LIXIL and Firmenich, and over 75 small- and medium-scale entrepreneurs and businesses.

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Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of the three days was a talk from Firmenich on Eliminating the “yuck factor” with smell science. You might have already seen the video that they premiered at the event, or read about it on Bill Gates’ Blog. Essentially, Firmenich is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle latrine malodour with “smell-cancelling” technology. The argument is that too often toilets don’t get used because they smell bad, and to combat this, Firmenich researchers are working on developing fragrances that block certain receptors in our noses, making us unable to register certain malodours. Think of noise cancelling headphones for example, but using your nose instead of your ears. As Bill Gates himself puts it, “The question now is whether this technology is good enough to make a difference in communities with poor sanitation.”

Innovative solutions to tackling global water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues are often a cause of much excitement, especially when a large multi-national company is seen to be working on something as exciting as this and is backed by the Gates Foundation. There is, after all, plenty of depressing statistics and indicators on access to sanitation in our sector, so why not afford ourselves the opportunity to get excited by something as pioneering and potentially as game changing as this? I would agree, however, perhaps the question that needs to be asked is not whether this technology is good enough to make a difference, but instead how can it make a positive difference?

Although smell-cancelling technology is still a long way from being usable and available, let’s just assume that it is ready to roll out and let me play devil’s advocate for a moment to pose some key questions about the potential impacts of this innovation:

  • Would you still be keen on using a latrine if there was poop all around the toilet even if there was no smell? This technology could be seen as a substitute for Operation and Maintenance (O&M) which will be required, perhaps more than ever, if a latrine has more users. Caretakers might feel that they no longer need to keep up hygiene standards - there is no smell, so it must be clean! Effective O&M from caretakers is often needed (but not always) to manage the emptying of pits, ensure there is access to water and soap, maintain hygiene, and collect user fees where relevant. Can we expect them to do all of this if they can’t keep a latrine clean and smelling decent without the use of this technology? Are we addressing a simple problem with a complex technical solution? Should we also be concentrating on behaviour change (people are embarrassed to be seen going to a latrine), increasing capacity, and promoting adequate monitoring with suitable incentives?
  • How will this technology be rolled out and integrated into existing supply chains so that it is accessible in hard-to-reach places in sub-Saharan Africa?
  • Public latrines aren’t always used as latrines. I’ve seen them used as homes, storage, and even a pigeon breeding home. What will happen if we make them smell too nice?
     
  • Flies are attracted to strong smells and there is a direct correlation between smell and presence of flies. I wonder, would this technology also work on pathogen vectors? It would be fantastic if it did, but if it didn’t, people might think their toilet is lovely when really there are many vectors spreading disease. Our overall target as professionals is to improve public health – not to increase latrine use. There is a case to be made that there is a logical and evolutionary reason for smell. In 2003, researchers at the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine carried out a study on smell and our association with disease. One of the researchers on the team, Val Curtis, echoes a suggestion that goes back as far as Charles Darwin: that we think poop stinks for our own good. Our disgust towards certain sights and smells, said Curtis, is a “behavioural immune system”: an adaptation—biologically rooted, but tweaked by culture and social conditioning—that evolved to keep us from coming into contact with infection and disease. Perhaps we shouldn’t be playing with this formula.

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. One area where this technology could really have an impact is in container-based sanitation. Many of the enterprises like Clean Team, Sanivation, SOIL or Mosan working in and pioneering this approach, rely on business models where the collection of waste from households is every two or three days. This is how long it takes it starts to smell and it doesn’t become something you want in your house. But what if this technology could be used here? Collection time could be increased to perhaps five days or more and this could be a successful method for scaling up access to sanitation by making business models more attractive and cost neutral.

Refugee camps and those for internally displaced people might also provide a great opportunity to trial this technology. The O&M works differently in this setting, there is a reliable supply of international products making their way to the camp from the implementing partners, and the focus here is less on behaviour change and more on public health impact.

I congratulate Firmenich and the Gates Foundation on this project and their early results. Let’s hope that if the opportunity comes, we as a sector can utilise it in the most beneficial way possible.

Editor's Note: In this post, Heloise Greeff Marais, Doctoral Researcher in the Water Programme, Computational Health Informatics Lab and Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, discusses the opportunity for multidisciplinary collaboration in the WASH sector.

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Oxford’s REACH Water global consortium involves partners from many countries and organisations. Credit: REACH2016

I’m a robotics engineer from South Africa. I like technology, control theory, and data science – mostly things that don’t  (and can’t) get wet!  I know very little, if anything, about marine governance science, watershed management, or international water law. So why am I in a two-week intensive research course focussing on water, climate, and society?

Over the last decade, the need for multidisciplinary teams has been widely published, however, this approach remains poorly applied outside of the healthcare sector.  Collaboration is too often treated like a minor add-on to a project; considered an inconvenience that only causes delays in decision points.

It can be uncomfortable to leave the familiarity of our professional scope. Sometimes rather unpleasant. Like being an adult at kindergarten. It’s scary.

Relationship building is a two-way street. More specifically, capacity building of professionals should begin at an individual level through personal development before we can expect changes at an institutional and societal level. 

So, who invited the mechatronics engineer to the water event? No one. Her curiosity and compassion led her here. 

To ensure universal drinking water access by 2030, we need to not only invest in capacity building of the local communities we engage, but also the professionals we rely on. Proposed integrated approaches for water interventions focus on breaking down the silos that exist between governments, donors, and local communities, yet, often overlook their own expert role.

The people (like me) who help develop the technologies, models, and infrastructure needed to achieve water security, may not always have in-depth knowledge of climate change impact factors or socio-economic dynamics related to water.

The water sector is particularly exposed to the effects of climate change. Although the impacts will be felt by developing and developed countries alike, unfortunately, it is the most marginalised who will be particularly vulnerable to the uncertainties in future weather patterns.

Recognising the pivotal role of water in climate change adaptation presents many opportunities for sustainable development. Innovative technologies and suitable implementation strategies for adaptation and mitigation are urgently needed. And with them will come the engineers, the techies, and the geeks who design them.

The Oxford Smart Handpump, which I work on, is a brilliant example of the potential impact of a social innovation emerging from successful cross-functional collaboration towards a common goal: universal drinking water security. Open communication and continuous feedback between engineers and geographers ensure a more robust technology while maximising social impact.

A two-week course on water and society by no means makes me an expert in the field of climate change or water security. But it does do something much more powerful: it begins to break down the silos that exist between different professional fields that evidently share a passion.

Social and natural scientists think, argue and view the world differently than engineers. But by entering a world in which I am considered an “outsider” and acknowledging that I lack speciality skills and insights, I make room for other people’s gifts. Making ourselves vulnerable is not easy and some may consider it a liability. But I recognise that technical expertise alone will not enable me to deliver the most impactful innovation.

In short, collaboration is not only a good investment, but also a necessity.

Water is pure. It cleans, renews, and gives life. But water is complex, water policy is messy and global water laws are murky. Impactful innovations require multi-dimensional approaches and unconventional expertise. It needs multidisciplinary teams.

So, who will invite the mechatronics engineer to the next water event? Everyone. I hope.

Editor's Note: In this post, Dylan Lunney, Director of Communications for OHorizons, discusses the Low Tech, High Thinking approach to creating affordable, simple solutions that can have a meaningful impact on WASH issues.

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Bangladeshi Women. Photo credit: ohorizons.org

Low-tech, scalable, local solutions present an exciting opportunity to address the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) objectives laid out in goal number six of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to tackling WASH issues, but in order for development projects to be successful and sustainable, communities should not be bystanders in projects that are designed to help them. This belief is underscored within SDG 6 section 6.6b

In addition, solutions addressing the challenges of people living in poverty should be designed by carefully examining and accounting for the needs, practices, and available resources of the end-user. This seems like a basic, self-evident concept, however the history of water development projects demonstrates otherwise.

Take for instance that the cumulative cost of failed water systems in sub-Saharan Africa alone was estimated to be $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion from 1987-2007. The poster child of this development design failure is the PlayPump, an initially highly-touted safe drinking water ‘solution’ that quickly failed when it turned out that kids would have to ‘play’ for 27 hours a day to filter the intended amount of water. Development projects that fail to incorporate the needs, skills, habits, and resources of the end-user don’t produce their intended result—in this instance providing safe drinking water—and they are an enormous waste of money, time, and resources. Instead, beneficiaries should be involved in identifying the technology and approach that will benefit them most and the community should be directly involved in the building and maintaining of their local infrastructure.

OHorizons, where I work, is part of this appropriate design movement in WASH global development. We call our design process Low-Tech, High-Thinking.

A lot of attention is given to the newest app or high-tech gadget. You’ve probably heard of Bill Gate’s highly celebrated machine that turns human waste into water. It’s impressive. It’s also impractical for most poor, rural communities, where the water and sanitation crisis is particularly dire, who likely don’t have the infrastructure or funds to build or maintain this $1.5 million dollar facility that is roughly the size of two school buses.

The core belief behind the Low-Tech, High-Thinking movement is that it takes just as much creativity and ingenuity to create affordable, simple solutions that can have a meaningful impact on a global scale. Understanding the systemic underlying causes along with listening to and learning from the end- user, is a vital part of this design process. Adhering to the following principles can also help guide this process and ensure a solution is truly centered around the beneficiaries and the environment in which they live:

Low-Tech Principles

Simple: Anyone, regardless of education level or expertise, should be able to develop and implement a solution with minimal instruction.

Low-cost: The solution should be affordable to the end-user.

Locally-sourced: 100% of the materials, tools, and labor should be available locally.

Flexible: Every community is different and has different resources available to them; solutions should be flexible enough to adapt to varying local conditions.

Open-source: Solutions should be freely available to anyone who would like to utilize them.

OHorizons has used this approach to engineer a Wood Mold for the production of concrete BioSand Filters (BSFs). BioSand Filters (BSFs) are a low-tech, household appliance that use sand, gravel, and natural biological processes to filter pathogens out of water, making it safe for drinking. We’ve made our step-by-step construction manual open-source so that local organizations can manufacture BSFs for a fraction of the upfront costs of the traditional steel mold. Our Molds make more than 50 concrete filters without an issue due to the use of our patented collapsible inner core and 2” x 2” supports that hold the outer walls of the Mold together with bolts rather than screws, which strip the wood. This innovation allows more people to get safe drinking water at an exponentially faster rate. 

There exist many other fantastic household level solutions that follow similar design parameters. Two of my favorites are the Tippy Tap for hand-washing and the C.R.A.P.P.E.R. for toilets.

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The Tippy Tap is a hands free way to wash your hands and is especially appropriate for rural areas where there is no running water. It is operated by a foot lever and thus reduces the chance for bacteria transmission as the user touches only the soap. They’re also very easy to build and can be made with basic, low-cost materials.

The organization Toilets for People (TFP) has designed a high-quality composting toilet that they’ve appropriately named the C.R.A.P.P.E.R. (compact, rotating, aerobic, pollution-prevention, excreta reducer). It’s user-friendly and easy to maintain, can be made from locally available materials for about $100, and is being built around the world by NGOs serving their communities.

Here’s a video of TFP in Peru with their NGO partner Amazon Promise, building 17 CRAPPERS:

 

Toilets for People’s founder Jason Kass, is a passionate ambassador for bridging the gap between the appropriate technologies already out there and creative implementation on the ground.

As we continue to develop solutions for water, sanitation, and hygiene, one area to think seriously about investing in is low-tech, human-centered design projects that transform beneficiaries into local change makers. Harnessing the power of people through Low-Tech, High-Thinking Design can and should play an important role in helping ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030!

Editor's Note: Innovation is often heralded as a major route to solving the global water and sanitation crisis. But is it the key, and should innovation be all about miracle inventions? In this post, Rémi Kaupp, Urban Sanitation Specialist at WaterAid UK, discusses whether and where it might be useful. This post was originally featured on WaterAid's blog. You can find the original post here.

Do we need more innovation? It is one of the values in our new strategy, and the fact that so many people still don’t have decent water and sanitation in the 21st century should call for massive and rapid innovation…shouldn’t it? Well, I have three problems with it.

First, there isn’t much that needs improvement about having a tap connected to mains water and using a toilet that flushes into a sewer. These are services that most people around the world aspire to, and they fulfil people’s right to water and sanitation. Sure, they could be improved – we should use less water, we need to recover nutrients instead of losing them, etc; these ideas are already the focus of many engineers in richer countries.

Julius Chisengo and Cleophas Shinga empty the contents of a pit latrine using a Gulper pit-emptying pump, Dar es Salaam City, Tanzania. Credit: WaterAid / Eliza Deacon

Julius Chisengo and Cleophas Shinga empty the contents of a pit latrine using a Gulper pit-emptying pump, Dar es Salaam City, Tanzania. Credit: WaterAid / Eliza Deacon

Second, the main ingredients needed to achieve universal water and sanitation coverage are well known, and, as is common in international development, they are not glamourous: large investments of public money, stronger institutions, better coordination between actors, targeting the most marginalised – i.e. the bread and butter of WaterAid’s advocacy.

Third, and most irritatingly, when we say “innovation”, we often hear “invention”. Barely a week goes by without our technical advisers receiving news of yet another miracle invention that will surely save the problem worldwide. So what is wrong with these?

Typically:

  • They are often point-of-use treatment systems, i.e. water filters, which can be useful in certain conditions (in emergencies, where people really have no choice but to gather water from a river or unsafe well), but often address a small part of the problem. Perfect water quality isn’t as problematic as the distance to the source in rural areas, and its price in cities, and therefore the quantity that people can use for hygiene and sanitation. 
  • Many inventions are developed by Northern inventors with few ties to local communities or consideration of local markets, and assumptions are made about what people actually want or need. The market studies we conduct always give surprising insights into people’s aspirations and hurdles. 
  • Many inventions use materials and techniques that are not available in the targeted countries, creating unsustainable supply chains. It is hard enough to have supply chains for sanitary pads and pump parts, let alone water filters or other more complex technology!
Looking beyond product development

I could go on, but enough ranting. We are nowhere near the target of everyone having safe water and sanitation, so we need to do better – and yes, we need innovation. We have to remember that there are many types of innovation beyond just the development of a new product. The SMS service used in Dakar for sludge collection tankers is an exciting example – the technical aspects are interesting, but, for me, the most interesting features are the strong leadership of the sanitation agency ONAS, the market studies that were used to design this new service, and the willingness to work between authorities and private operators. This sort of collaboration is a key innovative behaviour we need to see increasingly.

There are some great technical innovations in our sector, such as pre-paid water meterssimplified sewers, and the Gulper pit-emptying pump, and the lessons of their pilots are always very similar: they only work if they are developed in response to residents’ needs; they need to be led by the local water and sanitation agency or authority; and they are not usually standalone innovations but fit within broader actions towards improving water and sanitation.

Where is innovation needed?

So where do we need innovation? I have a few suggestions:

  • Pit emptying: Despite our attempts, we still haven’t found a safe and sustainable way to empty toilet pits and then to transport the sludge to a treatment station. The issue isn’t so much having a better pump or vehicle than finding how to run a sustainable business in that area, and what sorts of toilets would be both easier to empty and attractive to people.
  • Sanitation tariffs: Bills aren’t sexy, but they are the main resource utilities have to invest in more infrastructure. There are some ideas from around the world, but an issue is how to keep bills affordable for the poorest people while ensuring their right to good services is fulfilled. 
  • Monitoring water pumps: We know pumps break often and after just a few years, so can we track their failure and repair rate? Although again there are exciting technological innovations in this area, the real shift needs to be in how data are used by institutions and businesses to keep pumps functioning.
  • Making facilities accessible: It has been a long journey to have more accessible toilets in Europe, and there is still much to do. We know the technology needed, but how can we make sure accessible facilities are everywhere more quickly? How do we overcome the joint issues of technology, regulation and endemic inequality?

These are just my ideas – please do suggest other areas in the comments! For instance, perhaps you know of something exciting happening in humanitarian emergencies.

For me, the value of “innovation” isn’t in finding the solution to all water problems worldwide; it is more about persistence and openness, the willingness to try new approaches with an open mind, to sometimes fail and acknowledge it honestly, to learn and adapt and try again. This journey can be as exciting as the last ten years in toilet pit emptying!

We’re pleased to share that a recently released report from New Philanthropy Capital recognized WASHfunders.org as a top innovation in global philanthropy. The report, 10 Innovations in Global Philanthropy, praises the information on funding flows available through WASHfunders’ mapping tool and notes that the site reflects the broader push for open data in the philanthropic sector.

WASHfunders was also selected as the ‘Experts’ Top Pick’ among the innovations featured within the report, with Cath Tillotson of Scorpio Partnership commenting that, “If you define innovation as doing something differently, bigger or better, WASHfunders ticks all the boxes.”

WASHfunders and other innovations featured in the report will be discussed on a webinar to be held Wednesday, November 12th. Registration information and additional details are available here.

NPC’s report has been covered widely in philanthropic circles. Additional coverage includes an interview with WASHfunders’ lead, Seema Shah, on Philanthropy Age, a write up on Pro Bono Australia, and a mention on Health Affairs. In August, our Twitter feed was also cited as a top ten Twitter influencer in water and development by the Guardian.

We’re honored to receive the recognition and understand that the value of WASHfunders ultimately depends on our engagement with -- and usefulness to -- those working in the WASH sector! To contribute case studies, suggest recommended reading for the Knowledge Center, or submit a guest blog, contact us as washfunders@foundationcenter.org

Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by Libby Plumb, Senior Communications Advisor for WaterAid America, who has recently returned from visiting WaterAid’s water, sanitation and hygiene programs in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. 

Rehema and her daughter Mariam carrying water home from the spring in Rubaga, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

Rehema and her daughter Mariam carrying water home from the spring in Rubaga, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

Mariam is the only child of 22-year-old single mom Rehema. On the way to and from the local spring, near the Rubaga slum in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, she toddles behind her mother. It’s a journey they make four times a day to bring home enough water for drinking, cooking and washing.

Even little Mariam carries a jerry can of water: while Mom struggles under the weight of two 22 pound (10-liter) yellow jerry cans, Mariam follows behind carrying a bright red 11 pound (five-liter) jerry can – quite a feat for such a young child.

Rehema knows the quality of the spring water is questionable and could be risky for her daughter’s health. Kampala’s poorly constructed pit latrines and a high water table are a lethal combination as feces can easily contaminate the water supply. It’s not just water quality that is an issue. Accessibility is also a major challenge. With hundreds of people relying on the spring for water, crowds build up, with long waits common in the morning and evening when the heat of the sun is not so fierce. 

Rehema commented: “It’s very difficult to collect water from there. At 8 or 9 p.m. it is so crowded that it can take more than 30 minutes.”

Tensions often flare at the spring. Alongside women and children collecting water for their own domestic use are water vendors, usually men, who come to the spring to fill four or more jerry cans with water that they attach to bicycles and take to customers who pay for delivery service. Women and children are often pushed out of the way by vendors forcing their way to the front of the line. 

The need for safe, affordable, accessible water services in Rubaga is clear, but there are challenges inherent in extending piped water services into low-income neighborhoods. 

In other areas of the city where the National Water and Sewerage Company (NWSC) has granted water connections, it is common for landlords to sell water to their tenants for four to eight times the official rate. Poor families who are unable to afford the inflated rate continue to use polluted springs, even where there’s a tap right next to their home. 

Farahilh Masane collecting water from a prepaid meter in Kawempe, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

Farahilh Masane collecting water from a prepaid meter in Kawempe, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

A pilot program of pre-paid water meters being rolled out by NWSC and donors aims to tackle this problem. The meters are operated by an electronic key, known as a token, that is pre-loaded with credit. Anyone, landlord or tenant, can buy a key and refill it with credit. As water is dispensed, the meter deducts credit from the token at the official rate.  In this way, consumers deal directly with NWSC and there is no scope for middlemen to inflate the price. Consumers benefit from safe, affordable water, while NWSC benefits from knowing that by paying upfront, consumers are unable to default on payment of water bills. 

The system is not perfect. Vandalism has been known to damage meters, causing them to malfunction. Another concern is whether all tenants, particularly newcomers to the area, are in the know about how to buy and use tokens. But it’s a system that shows promise and offers hope to areas like Rubaga that are still unserved with water. 

Farahilh Masane is a resident of the Kawempe Division, where prepaid meters have been installed by Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), with support and funding from the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation and WaterAid. She told us: “I walk across the road to the prepaid meter because it is cheaper there: 100 Shillings [4 US cents] for four jerry cans. There is a private tap right here but it is too expensive for me: 200 Shillings [8 US cents] per jerry can. Before the meter was installed I collected water from a spring, but so many people near it have pit latrines, the water was contaminated.”

Back in Rubaga, Rehema is hopeful that she will be able to benefit from piped water soon too. “It would change my life to have clean water and live in a better environment.” 

Boy, 11, uses Tippy Toppy in Indonesia. Credit: Jim Holmes, Oxfam GB

Boy, 11, uses Tippy Toppy in Indonesia. Credit: Jim Holmes, Oxfam GB

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), a grantmaking fund designed to support organizations in developing new technologies to make humanitarian aid more effective, has launched a new initiative to encourage innovation in emergency water, sanitation and hygiene.

With support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the HIF’s WASH initiative aims to foster innovation and finance WASH solutions that will help save lives and reduce suffering during disasters and humanitarian crises.

To this end, the HIF has announced its first challenge: for latrine lighting in emergencies. To address safety concerns for those using latrines in refugee or displaced persons camps at night, the HIF is calling on problem solvers to submit a design for an effective lighting system for communal latrines that is both economical and unlikely to be vandalized or stolen. Applicants must submit their written proposals by March 16 and the winning idea will receive $20,000.

To read regular updates on the HIF’s new WASH initiative and stay informed about upcoming challenges, visit the program’s page on Storify or follow @The_HIF on Twitter.

The HIF is the product of a partnership between Enhancing Learning & Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) and ALNAP, with support from DFID, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and the Canadian International Development Agency.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have partnered to set up a joint trust fund to improve access to sanitation in Asia and the Pacific. Announced at World Water Week, the new Sanitation Financing Partnership Trust Fund will receive a $15 million investment from the Gates Foundation and will leverage more than $28 million in investments from ADB by 2017.

The Trust Fund aims to increase non-sewered sanitation and develop septage management solutions through funding innovative projects and supporting policies for low-income urban communities across Asia. The Trust Fund will be part of ADB’s Water Financing Partnership Facility (WFPF). Over the last seven years, WFPF has invested $2.5 billion in WASH projects. Through initiatives such as Grand Challenges Exploration and Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, the Gates Foundation has funded 85 development and research projects on sanitation.

View the infographic to learn about the Trust Fund’s goals.

Read ADB’s press release for additional details. 

Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by David Winder, CEO of WaterAid America. In it, David discusses WaterAid’s work with communities in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and India to help them improve water and sanitation conditions in innovative and entrepreneurial ways. A version of the story originally appeared here.

Bio gas system in May Ayni, Ethiopia. Credit: WaterAid / Marco Betti

Bio gas system in May Ayni, Ethiopia. Credit: WaterAid / Marco Betti

The ongoing sustainability of the world's water usage is a hot topic. Not a week goes by without headlines announcing water wars, falling water tables or droughts. Water is a commodity in high demand by competing sectors (industry, agriculture and drinking water) and many people are seeking answers to how we might survive with a finite pool of it.

The ten percent of people worldwide who already live without safe drinking water don't need headlines to know that life without water is near impossible — every day they struggle for survival without access to this most basic of human rights. More often than not, they are without basic sanitation facilities, also causing disease and death.

But sparks of entrepreneurial spirit are shining brightly through the doom and gloom surrounding the global water and sanitation crisis, even in the most remote corners of the planet. Some of the world's poorest communities are inspiring us with their willingness and commitment to develop low-cost, innovative solutions to their water and sanitation problems. In many cases, these same solutions are bringing about even wider benefits for the communities involved, including improved health, agricultural and business opportunities.

Human waste can be a massive health risk — without proper sanitation facilities, diarrheal diseases such as typhoid and cholera are prevalent. In fact 2,000 children die every day from water-related diseases. But WaterAid is finding success working with communities willing to experiment with turning their human waste into a source of income and increased crop yields.

Urban slums are notorious for a lack of garbage disposal and sewerage systems, leaving residents vulnerable to poor health. But in the slums just outside of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, a women's collective is transforming the health and well-being of their community. With a little help and encouragement from WaterAid, this group of enterprising women runs a café, selling food cooked with biogas that is fueled by methane from human and other waste. In addition to offering healthy meals, community members are encouraged to take advantage of the café's toilets and shower facilities, which customers can use for a small fee. The café offers vital sanitation services for the community, and provides the women with a source of income and social standing.

The café has also spurred on other entrepreneurial activity. Twenty-four year-old Tigist started up her own garbage removal service, which has not only cleaned up her area and helps prevent disease, but empowered her to demand wages equal to those paid to men in her community. She's now earning ten times more than she was before, and is hiring four staff to help her collect the garbage. The garbage is then given to the café to use to help produce the biogas to fuel the kitchen.

Omar Salima, farmer, in his fields that he has fertilized with compost from the ecosan latrine, Matamangwe village, near Lichinga, Niassa province, Mozambique. Credit: WaterAid / Thérèse Mahon

Omar Salima, farmer, in his fields that he has fertilized with compost from the ecosan latrine, Matamangwe village, near Lichinga, Niassa province, Mozambique. Credit: WaterAid / Thérèse Mahon

In Niassa province in Mozambique, WaterAid is working with communities to turn their human waste into safe, renewable and highly effective compost. This compost is proving invaluable to otherwise poor farmers, who are now reaping the benefits of more robust harvests — and incomes. Known as ecological sanitation (EcoSan) or composting latrines, each toilet has twin pits. While one is in use, the other is sealed, and the contents, which are mixed with dirt and ash, decompose into rich compost that can then be dug out and used on fields.

Trials have shown that the composting latrines are significantly boosting crop yields. In one district in Niassa, the community saw unusually high rainfall, causing traditionally planted crops to rot. However, crops planted in soil mixed with the contents of EcoSan toilets thrived. The difference was startling. In fact, the maize plants grown with compost from the latrines towered over neighboring plants and fruit trees planted with the compost were the only ones laden with fruit. In another area of the province facing drought, farmers harvested a huge tobacco crop from a field planted with EcoSan compost, while nearby fields failed to sprout.

Similar innovations are revolutionizing poor people's access to water and helping them to earn a living. In India, where many water pumps lie disused due to ill-repair, WaterAid and local partner organizations have helped budding entrepreneurs to start pump and well repair businesses. These businesses ensure the sustainability of water supplies, while at the same time providing jobs to community members.

Handpump mechanic, Ram Rati, with the tools that she uses to repair waterpoints in Mahoba district, India. Credit: Esther Havens for The Adventure Project

Handpump mechanic, Ram Rati, with the tools that she uses to repair waterpoints in Mahoba district, India. Credit: Esther Havens for The Adventure Project

The mechanic training program in the district of Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh is a perfect example of this. In an area where 4,000 water pumps lie broken, WaterAid has worked with local people to set up a storefront and buy tools, bikes and water quality testing equipment. After training people from the community to become mechanics, including seven women, they started repairing pumps for any village willing to pay.

It worked. The mechanics have fixed over 300 pumps: pumps that help prevent disease, and that supply 30,000 people with fresh, clean water. What's more, the female mechanics have earned the respect of community members and feel empowered.

Such entrepreneurship is driving improvements in women's rights, prosperity, health and nutrition. Although small, these innovative water and sanitation projects are inspiring. In the face of adversity, communities are showing that a little creativity and the determined will to work hard to control their own destiny go a long way in helping escape the grips of poverty and providing a more secure future for their children.

Editor’s Note: In this guest post, Wherever the Need, a UK-based charity that develops and builds eco-toilets, discusses its Sanitation First project in Tamil Nadu, India. A version of the piece originally appeared here.

Introducing an innovative sanitation project

Credit: Wherever the Need

Tamil Nadu, on the Southeast coast of India, is considered to be one of the wealthiest states in the country, but behind the economic and industrial growth lies another story — one of acute poverty.

We have started to work with six of the poorest villages in rural Tamil Nadu. Not a single family in these communities has access to a toilet, which means that the local environment and water sources are polluted, spreading illness and disease. Diarrhoea remains one of the biggest killers of children in the region.

Family ecosan toilet in Tamil Nadu, India. Credit: Wherever the Need

Family ecosan toilet in Tamil Nadu, India. Credit: Wherever the Need

So what are we doing?
We are putting Sanitation First, and working to make sure every person in all six villages has access to good sanitation facilities. We are building ecosan (composting) toilets for each and every family within the villages.

Why is this innovative?
What’s new and exciting is that we are providing a sanitation service to maintain the programme. We are employing a care-taking team to empty the toilets and make sure the facilities are well-maintained and clean.

How do we pay for this?
This is the great bit — there is money to be made from poo! We store and compost the waste collected from the toilets, and sell it to generate income. This means that the programme is not just ecologically sustainable, but financially sustainable too.

Using this model we can support a cluster of 5-6 villages in one area. In due course we hope to roll out the programme to new areas and communities.

Initial trials have been so successful that our work has come to the attention of both local and central government in India. The Tamil Nadu State government is so impressed that they are subsidising the programme, providing 35% funding for every family ecosan toilet that we build.

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