The toilet challenge

Former Sen. Edgardo J. Angara

Column-Sen Edgardo Angara photo

In 2011, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave out sizable research grants to universities and enterprises toward developing new tools and technologies that will urgently address a problem affecting up to 40 percent of the world’s population—lack of access to proper sanitation.

For close to 2.5 billion people, many of whom are mired in poverty, flush toilets and clean bathrooms are not readily available. Sanitation levels remain very poor in various parts of the world, even in areas where household and communal toilets are great in number for lack of a fully functional sewage system.

In the Philippines alone, 24 million Filipinos, roughly 26 percent of the population, face this problem. Studies reveal that nearly eight million individuals, most in the poorest regions of the country, still defecate behind bushes, on fields, into plastic bags, or along roadside ditches and highways.

As a result, more Filipinos are becoming vulnerable to water-borne diseases and other preventable afflictions like cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, and pneumonia. If the status quo remains, the costs incurred by the Philippines from poor sanitation and hygiene may add up to around USD 1.4 billion a year, as estimated by the World Bank in 2008.

Sanitation was one of the issues addressed in the Water Sector Reform Act (WSRA), which I authored and pushed for during my last term as senator. The WSRA called for deep, structural reforms to the country’s highly fragmented water sector, which led to the piecemeal development of sewage systems across the country.

The measure mandated the establishment of Local Water Supply and Sanitation Companies (LWSSCs), constituted as government-owned and –controlled corporations (GOCCs) that will construct, maintain, and operate modern sanitation and sewerage systems.

Such modern facilities require massive capital outlay, which is often too high for the impoverished communities that direly need them. The “toilet challenge” posed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation responds precisely to this problem.

Through grants, researchers are driven to fast-track development of next-generation toilets, envisioned to be affordable, waterless, “off-grid” implements that can be connected to sustainable and financially viable sanitation services in poor, urban settings.

During the first round of the Gates Foundation grants, the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) received USD 400,000 to develop an environmentally safe toilet that operates without running water and releases to a septic tank. By 2012, CalTech created a waterless, solar-powered toilet that discharges fertilizer material and water clean enough for irrigation. For their innovation, CalTech received an extra USD 100,000 to fine-tune their creation.

Two more rounds of research grants have since been conducted. Some were undertaken this year specifically toward reinventing sanitation technologies in India and Southeast Asia.

Philippine researchers should participate in this global endeavor for more affordable, environmentally friendly toilets to augment public health efforts of the government. Breakthroughs in this area could also boost our disaster resilience, as an easily deployable toilet and off-grid waste management system would be immensely helpful to rehabilitation efforts in areas devastated by Typhoon Yolanda.

Water supply and sanitation is essential to the overall well-being of the population and should remain at the core of the country’s social welfare and public healthcare policies.

VitalSigns Issue 58 Vol. 2, December 1-31, 2013