Toilets Can Change the World

Yesterday was the United Nations’ World Toilet Day and NPR had several worthy stories on the topic. Why toilets? Eric Ng, had a great answer to that question in his Denter of the Week interview:

What world-changing innovation from history do you find most interesting or inspirational?
Toilets. They’re deceptively simple as they elegantly hide the complex infrastructure needed to run them effectively at scale. India’s PM Modi recently pledged to give all Indians access to toilets (2.5b people still live without proper sanitation, including 600M in India). We’re fortunate to have them.

Indeed toilets, or rather the lack of them, is a hot topic in addressing the needs of the world’s poor:

We in the West don’t spend much time pondering that question (on or off the toilet).

“It’s something that’s always in the background that keeps everything else moving,” says Sam Drabble of Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), a London-based nonprofit. “It allows us to live very busy lives, and it’s not something we ever need to think about.”

Others aren’t so fortunate. Geeta has no toilet near her home in northern India; she treks 2 miles in the dark to a field for privacy. If Vanessa’s school had private bathrooms, the 17-year-old wouldn’t have to miss class when she’s having her period. In Ecuador, Reverside, 37, wouldn’t have to visit her brother’s house to use his toilet, which is shared by nine other people from different families.

Singaporean entrepreneur Jack Sim wants to change all that. Sim, who made his fortune in construction, aims to bring toilets to every human being on earth:

What’s a misconception we in the world of high-end toilets have about toilets in the lower-income countries?

That if you give toilets to people, they will use them. Open defecation [in a field, on the street, wherever] has a lot of advantages: It’s free of charge and you don’t have to buy [soap]. You don’t have to empty the toilet. It’s a norm from centuries and generations. So first you have to make owning a toilet not just rational but aspirational. You have to make a toilet come with bragging rights, like a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Aspiration is important, as you can see even rich people have really nice toilets — they go for the highest level all the time. So this is the same as the poor people. They aspire to own products that have bragging rights, like a cellphone or television. The psychology is exactly the same.

What kind of toilet would appeal to the untoileted world?

A toilet should be as good as the house. So if the house is simple, then the toilet should be simpler. When it’s not compatible, interesting things happen. When we donated a toilet to a school [in rural China], later on the principal moved his office into the toilet because he found that the toilet is more beautiful than the school and his office.

[The toilet] must be close-looped. That means you can empty [the waste] and you can recycle the nutrients. If it ends up in the river and the lake and contaminates the water, it spreads disease.

And speaking of toilets as good as the house, this year’s award for America’s Best Restroom went to Longwood Gardens for…well, just click the link and see.