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Sanitary facilities

Good and clean

Two and a half billion people worldwide lack access to hygienic sanitary facilities: a problem that sickens and kills people around the globe.

Text Tino Scholz 

It was a milestone for Jack Sim. Since 2001, the entrepreneur from Singapore has been leading the struggle for what he and his World Toilet Organization (WTO) call “basic sanitary care”: hygienic toilets for everyone, everywhere around the world. Initially sneered at for his dedication, Sim managed to attend the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on July 24, 2013. On this day, the council’s 193 member states unanimously declared November 19 to be UN World Toilet Day. Since that time, public attention has focused once a year on the fact that, in many countries, only the wealthy have access to sanitary facilities. According to the WTO, around 2.5 billion people in the world lack adequate basic sanitation. As just one example, some must defecate out in the open.

With perseverance and a lot of dedication, Jack Sim and the WTO got this issue onto political radars and agendas, a topic that most people usually only speak about behind closed doors, if at all. All the same, the elimination of feces and urine is as essential to human existence as breathing, eating and drinking. And, just as breathing polluted air or eating spoiled food makes a person ill, the inadequate hygiene caused by a lack of toilets is also dangerous: feces can contaminate groundwater and cause illnesses. A study by the World Health Organization estimates that there are around 800,000 fatal cases of diarrheal diseases annually, particularly among women and children. According to the WTO, more children die every year of diarrhea—which is often a direct consequence of poor sanitation— than of AIDS, malaria and measles combined. The United Nations thereby demands that every person should be able to afford access to clean sanitary facilities by the year 2030.


Huge challendes

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Huge challendes

Megacities like Mumbai battle with an influx of hundreds of thousands of people with sanitary problems.

Central role for standards

The importance of hygienic toilets for people’s health is something that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also recognized. Back in 2011, it started the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge—and brought TÜV SÜD aboard two years later as technical experts.

The task for the team headed by Dr. Andreas Hauser, director of Water Services at TÜV SÜD: monitor the development of new technologies, formulate relevant global standards and thereby achieve faster market acceptance. “New technologies must not only be developed, but also commercialized and brought to markets in accordance with market mechanisms,” Hauser says. “Standards play a central role here.” The TÜV SÜD team is in contact with research institutions, manufacturers, consumers and standardization authorities around the world.

Basic sanitation is a global topic—but the problems vary substantially from region to region. For instance, classic European or American sewage systems with their flushing systems and extensive networks of underground wastewater lines aren’t good solutions for many arid or sparsely populated regions. Where water is scarce it shouldn’t just be flushed down the toilet. Aggravating the situation in many developing countries is the fact that they simply cannot afford the infrastructure required.

This is why the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge has been pushing for the development of innovative, flexible sanitary systems. “We’re talking about toilets that aren’t connected to wastewater systems and that treat human excrement directly inside the toilet itself—and without posing any health or environmental risks,” Hauser explains.

Another solution: modern vacuum toilets that direct the feces into special containers with the assistance of negative pressure. The water needed for flushing can be reused here: it can be used to generate energy and warmth in a biogas plant. The fermentation residues from the biogas plant can in turn be utilized as agricultural fertilizer.

Of particular concern to the many experts are the growing megacities in the developing countries—places where a large number of people live together in close proximity. In the slums of Mumbai for instance, local authorities report that a minimum of 58 people share one toilet. However, depending on the district, this figure can explode to up to one thousand people. “Our work’s focus is definitely on the cities, particularly since rural migration exacerbates this dynamic and we don’t expect this process to be reversed,” Hauser says.

He promotes so-called omniprocessors for the metropolitan areas of the future. These are plants that are designed for 100 to 100,000 people and run autonomously, meaning that they don’t have to be connected to either wastewater systems or the power grid. Excrement is composted here and then reused. The sale of fertilizer is meant to bring in enough money to finance the facility’s operation.

One thing is definitely certain: the era in which a pit was dug out behind the house will soon be a thing of the past. It’s something the United Nations also agrees on. One of their millennium goals is the demand that serious improvements be achieved in the sanitary conditions for at least 100 million slum residents by 2020.

For Andreas Hauser at TÜV SÜD it’s clear: “It’s safe technology, above all, that will help us achieve these goals and let people live healthier lives.”