off-the-grid, profitable toilets? / why would you do things that way? (I)

i am pretty sure this is the beginning of a cool idea for improving water & sanitation, which is ever-so-critical for public health (still the #2 cause of under-5 mortality globally – though it’s not clear if these new toilets have potty-training options and what that actually means for the spread of disease…). skipping the toilet grid might be an example of a leap-frogging technology and the argument runs that if the waste could be made profitable (in addition to the initial unit), there would be incentive to maintain facilities.

the article reads:

the flush toilet… credited with adding a decade to our longevity… is an impractical luxury for about two- thirds of the world’s 7 billion people because it relies on connections to water and sewerage systems that must be built and maintained at great expense.

first, new designs are required for toilets that are hygienic, pleasant, and cheap to make and use, and that work without being connected to a grid. because such a facility would have to be periodically emptied, ideally excretions would be treated not as waste but either recycled on site or turned into profitable resources… the Gates Foundation requires that the overall cost of a future toilet, including maintenance, not exceed 5 cents per user per day… that would enable the private sector to step up production and distribution once practical new models have emerged. Cities would have to build a new generation of waste-processing centers, but the investment would quickly pay for itself… for gridless sanitation to be economical, commerce needs to flourish around the collection and treatment of excrement.

is the assumption that low- and middle-income states cannot or need not have responsibility for water & sanitation? water & sanitation seem like fairly classic examples of public goods and even of rights as citizens or humans, depending how you like your rights. what role can and should the state play if we move forward sans grid? does sanitation represent a natural monopoly or is it fair ground for competition? what role can/should the state play in regulation and/or provision of free or low-cost (or micro-financed) options for those who cannot pay — either as a public good for public health or as a right?

the main example of private water – if not sanitation – provision that comes to mind are the different water companies that provided water in John Snow’s day — allowing for a nice epidemiological experiment and the near-conclusion of an important disease transmission debate — but also for a lot of cholera. is there an example of scaled private sanitation provision that could provide a model for how the whole system – provision, collection, & maintenance, not just individual toilets (though, rock on, engineers) — might work?

fun fact! John Snow tested his anesthetics on himself, recording just before he passed out and first thing when he woke up. (see The Ghost Map)

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toilets: the importance of ownership (also, really, the iPad of commodes?)

there are some cool ideas about local maintenance and ownership in the reported community-led total sanitation.

we shouldn’t be too hasty to overlook the ‘conceptual ownership’ aspect, though. It’s really important that there is responsibility delegated for taking care of a toilet or latrine. i have encountered plenty of toilets – and lines for toilets – in many places that make going outside the clearly superior alternative. any time i see an initiative for building a large number of new latrines or toilets (like this), i worry about that all-important maintenance component that turns the toilets into a permanent improvement.

among other experiences, an unregistered slum in bombay in which i did some research had only a few latrines, privately owned by households. The households charged money but did not maintain the latrines. It was clear why many people still preferred to use the ocean. and those who did wait for the latrine often faced a morning before-school rush that was daunting, often resulting in kids being late for school.

so, yes, there is a very important element of ownership related to aspirations and feeling good about your latrine and bad about the alternative. but don’t forget the cleaning-duty chore wheel and check-list.