Development discussions should include some potty talk
Bill Gates lifted up a vial of human feces before a crowd in Beijing recently.
“A decade ago, I didn’t think I would be able to tell you so much about poop,” he said.
Indeed, any serious discussion about development must include potty talk.
One of Earth’s wealthiest people held up a glass container of waste partly to point out how the fact that — despite its planetary significance — the taboo surrounding discussions about toilets has contributed to the reality that more than half of humans still lack access to adequate sanitation. This not only costs an estimated $223 billion in lost productivity and wages a year globally, as he pointed out, but it also contributes to the deaths of over half a million children under the age of 5 every year, and mass malnutrition.
Gates pointed out that the sample he held up at the Reinvented Toilet Expo hosted about 200 trillion rotavirus particles, 20 billion shigella bacteria and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs, among other pathogens.
Urbanization and water scarcity mean the disease problem is likely to accelerate, he believes. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had put up $200 million to fund innovators to develop omniprocessors that kill pathogens and break waste into clean water, electricity and fertilizer on-site. Their innovations were displayed at the expo. Gates pledged another $200 million for the coming years.
China proved an ideal host for the event, especially since it launched its “toilet revolution” in 2015.
“In recent decades, China has made great progress improving health and sanitation for millions of people,” Gates said at the event, about two weeks before World Toilet Day on Nov 19.
“President Xi Jinping’s ‘toilet revolution’ underscores China’s commitment to accelerating progress on safe sanitation. And China has an opportunity to help launch a new category of innovative nonsewer sanitation solutions that will benefit millions of people worldwide.”
I’ve seen much progress in sanitary toilets during my 12 years in China, during which I’ve covered poverty.
Perhaps the most memorable “toilet” was a tire on a frame of four boards stuck in the crotch of a tree suspended just over the edge of a cliff in Guizhou province. I had to overcome my fear of heights.
So, yes, it’s time for the world to engage in potty talk.