New innovative toilets needed to tackle sanitation challenge
Today marks World Toilet Day and is a reminder of the lack of sanitation globally
TODAY, the world marks World Toilet Day. There are many reasons to celebrate a hygienic toilet, chief among them is that it serves as one of the most important medical devices in a house along with clean water supply.
Toilets provide an important medical function by separating users from faecal material which can be the source of many water-borne illnesses, including cholera and diarrhoea and soil-transmitted diseases, such as intestinal worms. The lack of hygienic toilet facilities has detrimental consequences to humans.
The World Health Organisation estimates that inadequate sanitation causes 432 000 diarrhoea deaths, with mainly young children susceptible.
The lack of sanitation also contributes to malnutrition, lost educational opportunities and is associated with a lack of dignity.
The knock-on effects on a country can be significant, it was estimated poor sanitation cost the global economy around R3 trillion mainly through mortality, loss of productivity, burden on healthcare for preventable diseases and the time used for locating a toilet.
Despite the many societal benefits of providing hygienic sanitation, there are approximately 2 billion people that still do not have basic sanitation facilities with nearly 700 million people around the world that have to relieve themselves in bushes, in water and in the streets.
This is eye-opening considering a hygienic toilet is one of your home’s most important medical devices, yet for many there is evidence suggesting that some have no such option.
World Toilet Day serves as inspiration for the world to tackle the global sanitation challenge.
The theme for World Toilet 2019 is “Leaving no one behind” and is linked to Sustainable Development Goals, specifically Target 6, which is to eliminate defecating in the open and to ensure that everyone has access to sustainable services by 2030.
It has been 50 years since the first manned Apollo 11 mission to the moon and numerous human technological advances since then. Yet, as a global community, we have not figured out how to achieve universal sanitation access, one of human beings most basic needs.
Why do we struggle and what are the challenges – despite the numerous benefits associated with sanitation provision?
There are many reasons, but these are symptoms of a lack of technical options in the way we provide toilet facilities, which is limited to two extreme constraints: full flush linked to sewers and dry sanitation in the form of latrines.
Full-flush toilets connected to sewers are mainly found in urbanised areas within South Africa. It may be startling to know but the basic design of the flush toilet has not changed considerably since the late 1700s.
The S-shaped pipe that you find at the bottom of the toilet and connected to the wall of your home is the same design that has been used since the 1700s.
The water inside the toilet bowl of your flush toilet serves as an odour trap while the flushing water is used as a transport medium to remove the faecal waste into sewer systems.
There has been little innovation in toilet design for over a 100 years.
In urban South African homes, around 6 to 9 litres of potable water – water that is perfectly safe for human consumption – is used to do this.
Globally this strategy has resulted in a significant reduction of waterborne illnesses.
But in South Africa, which experiences uneven rainfall distribution and water stress in various parts of the country, this approach may not be viable in the long-term. At the moment, many parts of the country are experiencing heatwave conditions and there is concern over water supply.
Water utilities requested that residents use water more sparingly as water consumption increased during the heatwave conditions.
Herein exists an opportunity to reduce or recycle water for flushing.
Toilet flushing contributes to around 30% of household water use. It seems illogical that we could use clean drinkable water, which is of limited supply, to flush our urine and faeces.
Would people use 6 to 9 litres of cooldrink or fruit juice to flush their faecal waste? It can be assured that the answer would probably be no and probably indicates how little we consider the value of water – until we have little or none.
It is anticipated that with high urbanisation trends and population growth, more people will desire to be connected to the sewer system, resulting in more potable water flushing and increasing pollution load volumes to be treated.
One of the main reasons why South Africa cannot implement sewers throughout the country is that the technical option is costly; South Africa is water-stressed and cannot afford to flush away potable water; sewer laying is a time-consuming and costly exercise and sewer-based treatment systems are significantly more expensive to operate, maintain and implement than other options. If water-based sewer systems are costly, what are the other options available?
On the opposite side of the technical spectrum are on-site sanitation systems. These systems do not need to be connected to a sewer and common outside urban centres. Septic tanks are considered as an on-site sanitation system, but by far the most common system used in rural and peri-urban settlements are latrines – also commonly called “long drops”.
As the name suggest, faecal waste “drops” into a hole in the ground.
The best attribute of the technology is that is does not require water to function thereby saving water and the need for sewer pipes. This design was a temporary solution and is difficult to manage as the number of users is highly variable, the toilets can fill quickly and requires emptying.
The cost associated with the disposal of viscous, sticky paste called faecal sludge can be significant.
With limited options available, municipalities have little choice but to implement costly solutions which are not sustainable over the long-term.
Clearly there is a need for new and innovative toilets that close the gap between aspirational flush-styled toilets and rudimentary pit latrine toilets which do need sewers and save water while not requiring any sludge handling and disposal. South Africa, much like the rest of the world, cannot afford to leave anybody behind.
A LABOURER works on a toilet bowl at a ceramic factory in Hebei province, China. There has been little innovation in toilet design for more than 100 years, says the writer.