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Why toilets should be on the agenda at Davos

Wednesday, 23 January 2019 10:57 GMT

Makeshift, unsafe 'hanging' latrines in Mollar Bosti slum, Dhaka, Bangladesh. WaterAid/Rasel Chowdhury

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As the World Economic Forum in Davos opens, I have been struck by two pieces of news illustrating both the need and the challenge we face in reaching everyone, everywhere with clean water and a decent toilet.

First, the New York Times reminded us that an estimated 300,000 people a day in 2018 were reached with clean drinking water – highlighting that, as dreary and worrying as the state of our Earth may sometimes seem, humankind is still making progress.

And second was a quirky story about a voice-operated new toilet powered by Amazon’s Alexa, which allows the user to order up temperature settings, mood lighting, music, wash-and-dry functions and – naturally -- automatic cleaning.

This sounds like the ultimate in hi-tech innovation in sanitation. And yet, a shocking 2.3 billion people around the world don’t yet have a bog-standard household toilet at their disposal.

It’s unlikely that many of the leaders and entrepreneurs at Davos will be thinking very much at all about toilets. They should.

For one thing, sanitation is big business: More than 100 million people gained a decent, private household toilet in 2015 – an average of 270,000 each day. While this is an enormous achievement, it is only a small fraction of what is actually needed, since it is only about one mega-city’s worth of people, or 20 million, more than annual global population growth, and many countries cannot keep up with the pace of growth and urbanisation.

The economic impact of poor sanitation is enormous: an estimated $222.9 billion lost from GDP in 2015 alone, from the costs of mortality, lost productivity, increased healthcare and the sheer time lost to looking for a decent place to go. That toll includes the lives of 289,000 children under five who perish annually from diarrhoeal illnesses directly linked to dirty water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene.

Consider, too, the lost days of education and the lost potential of children who are chronically unwell or stunted. Cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio are among the deadly diseases which thrive in the absence of good sanitation.

Most of this burden is felt in the Asia-Pacific, slowing economies in many nations which otherwise boast of progress: a toll of US $172.3 billion from GDP from that region alone – each year.  

And yet this is a part of the world which is no stranger to innovation. Consider another statistic: Technology companies, including several based in Asia-Pacific, shipped 1.44 billion smartphones around the globe in 2018 alone. That is the equivalent of 3.9 million smartphones a day.

Two-thirds of the world’s population, or 5 billion people, own mobile phones –a number which took only five years to reach, and is expected to jump to 75% by 2020. Of those, about half are smartphone users; by 2020, it is projected to be about two-thirds.

So what if toilets were smartphones, and what if the world committed to bringing toilets to people at the same rate? At that pace, there’d be enough to reach everyone in the world currently without a decent toilet within two years -- even accounting for population growth.

Those of us working in sanitation aspire to capturing that kind of rapid growth, ambition and inspiration: a step-change in innovation, financing and drive to ensure everyone in the world gets access to this most basic of services, to ensure better health, productivity and dignity.

How do tech companies encourage people to buy smartphones? They do it by ensuring they are available and affordable, by providing a range of options, and by ensuring they are something people aspire to using: a status symbol which is within reach.

It was no accident that Bill Gates chose Beijing – capital of one of the world’s fastest-emerging superpowers -- in which to hold his Reinvented Toilet Expo in November, speaking with a jar of human faeces at his side to showcase radical redesigns of the basic toilet.

Among the highlights: a small-scale, self-powered treatment plant called the Omni Processer which processes human and solid waste to produce electricity and clean drinking water, and ‘reinvented toilets’ using technologies which break down human waste and destroy germs, leaving behind clean water and solids safe to use as fertiliser.

But innovation is critical beyond technology: Multinational corporations who manage countless challenges in sourcing and supply chains, marketing and sales also have contributions to make in the delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene, whether that is focused on their own markets and supply chains, or lending expertise and innovation to the planning, training and management of the treatment and safe disposal of human waste. WaterAid has worked with leading multinationals including Gap, Diageo and Unilever on demonstrating the business case for water, sanitation and hygiene, with more work underway. 

The World Economic Forum will consider some of the most critical issues facing our planet, including calls for a Fourth Industrial Revolution in technology and the impact of climate change on global growth and development.

As the world’s cities grow, and the extreme weather patterns that accompany climate change take greater hold, innovation in sanitation presents more than great opportunity and must not be relegated to the corporate social responsibility team. It is essential to the sustainability of global corporations in ensuring their own successful operations and in growing new markets. Alongside water and hygiene, good sanitation contributes to higher levels of education and productivity, and ultimately to greater business success.

It is time for toilets, which play such a crucial part in keeping us healthy and happy, to go truly viral. Surely we can all press “like” on that ambition.