Why Toilets Are a Simple Solution to Saving Lives in India

After a trip to New Delhi, writer Mitchell Koss talks candidly about a topic not usually discussed in polite society.

(Photo: Sattish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Apr 1, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Mitchell Koss has produced documentaries and segments for PBS, National Geographic, MTV, Nova, Current TV, Channel One News and ABC News, and has worked in more than 60 countries. Koss produced "Narco Wars" for CNN.

I just got back from my seventh trip to New Delhi, India’s capital. I ate in my favorite tandoor restaurant, jogged along familiar colonial-era avenues, and—a new one for me—attended the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s second annual Reinvent the Toilet Fair.

Reinventing the toilet is not the same kind of technological quest as say, Steve Jobs’ famous drive to reinvent the mobile phone. And even though the Gates Foundation is targeting hundreds of millions of potential consumers, it’s not going to pay off in direct and easily measurable ways, like a soaring stock price.

Rather, the goal is to help billions of people around the world deal with that rarely discussed common denominator of humanity: shit.

Shit and me go way back. As a journalist, I’ve covered it intermittently for nearly two decades. I’ve seen the impact fecal matter can have if you leave it lying around in the open—as 2.6 billion people are forced to do every day. I also know firsthand what it feels like to be infected with roundworm, amoebas, and other intestinal parasites.

It sucks. And if you’re old, already sick, or under the age of five, it’s frequently fatal. About 200,000 children under four die each year in India, where 620 million people practice open defecation, because of diarrheal diseases caused by dirty water and lack of proper sanitation.

But as the name Reinvent the Toilet implies, the potential remedies for open defecation involve accepting that the entire world might never have access to the kind of beautiful porcelain thrones that Americans are accustomed to using in our bathrooms.

Perhaps you saw the episode of TakePart Live where Jacob Soboroff tours a wastewater treatment plant in Los Angeles. At the end, Jacob and producer Yoonj Kim drink water that, prior to eight hours of processing, was literally full of shit. But according to the sanitation engineers and scientists at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair, this kind of treatment is not possible today in the developing world. Too expensive. Too energy-intensive. Too water-intensive.

Outside the Toilet Fair, I filmed Yoonj, who was the correspondent on an hour-long April 10 episode of TakePart Live devoted entirely to sanitation, visiting Sulabh International, home of the world’s largest toilet museum. Sulabh’s founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, pioneered the development of composting toilets, arguably the first reinvention of toilets since the flush toilet was developed centuries ago. Sulabh’s toilet is extremely low-cost, so the poorest of villagers can afford it. It’s not attached to sewer systems. And it composts the fecal matter, rendering it free of disease-carrying pathogens—which is exactly what the multimillion-dollar wastewater treatment plant in L.A. does. As a bonus, that very same composted shit can be used as fertilizer or fuel. But Sulabh also fashions the composted poop into balls to play with (Yoonj, demonstrating just one of her many talents, even juggled some). Fitting because Sulabh sees its mission as not only developing low-cost toilets but, more important, breaking the taboo against talking about shit.

Two hours’ drive out of New Delhi, Yoonj and I visited a village where everyone had a toilet, thanks to Sulabh. The villagers were also aware of the local government’s “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign, aimed at parents because most marriages in India are still arranged. It aims to convince folks that that they risk losing social status if they marry their daughter off to a man without a toilet. As another fair attendee, Jack Sim, founder of World Toilet Organization, points out, because even the rural poor can afford to buy them on their own, once they are motivated to want composting toilets, their demand will be a boon for local businesses.

In urban slums, installing Western-style toilets in everyone’s home might not work—even if many developing world governments weren’t either too poor or too corrupt or both to invest in sewage systems or even significant numbers of public toilets. So here the need to reinvent the toilet becomes acute.

Near the end of our weeklong trip, Yoonj and I filmed a water tanker truck making a delivery in a New Delhi slum with 10,000 residents. People lined up hours in advance of the tanker’s arrival, waiting for their weekly water ration of 50 liters (about 13 gallons) per person. Imagine if the slum residents also had toilets that needed flushing (27 percent of water usage in American homes, according to the EPA)? This is why a toilet in the urban area must be cheap and not be connected to any complex energy-consuming sewer infrastructure, but it also can’t use any water or energy. It has to be totally off the grid.

But I did notice one huge change already. When I last covered sanitation, in 2010, I went to the New Delhi office of UNICEF and was told that they couldn’t give an on-camera interview about open defecation for fear of offending local sensibilities and local politicians. But now that the Gates Foundation has entered the picture, these taboos are starting to disappear. One of the first things that I noticed at this year’s Reinvent the Toilet Fair were posters for UNICEF’s Indian “Take the Poo to the Loo” campaign, featuring a giant cartoon turd that terrifies small children.

It’s going to be a long haul. But now at least people are freer to come together and talk shit.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC, or its affiliates.