Low-Tech Design Can Fuel WASH Innovations & SDG6

Editors 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.
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 are 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.

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!