Keeping Gates Open to a New Flushed Toilet
The interest shown by Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and the world’s most famous philanthropist, in a revolutionized flushed toilet - a fairly reliable indicator of the relative global prosperity - and the overwhelmingly- positive response that it generated from the scientific community, clearly show that the humble device is not just for getting rid of what is not digested; on the contrary, it can also be a place to digest the acceptable, the unacceptable or even mentally harmonize the two in notoriously-complex, culturally-polarized human defecation process, in order to come up with something ingenious.
In 2011, Gates Foundation headed by Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, offered grants to invent a new toilet for the developing world, satisfying three conditions: the toilet should use little or no water; it must be cheap and easy to install for obvious reasons; it should be safe and hygienic - a concern that is always close to Mr Gates’ heart.
In addition to the main goal of his mission, Mr Gates had a provocative aspiration too: the feasibility of turning waste into energy, clean water or fertilizer with a minimum financial burden on the user.
No one doubts Mr Gates’ noble intentions in launching this project, as he has first-hand experience in seeing the hygienic factor – or lack of it – in shaping the rural lives in Africa and some parts of Asia. In addition, he may have read the book, The Big Necessity by Rose George, which sheds fascinating light on the adventures in the world of human waste.
Moreover, being no stranger to spotting talent, Mr Gates may have noticed the average time spent inside a toilet by men and women in the affluent parts of the world while doing plenty of secondary things without derailing the primary task or losing the dignity, even when the pants are down: reading newspapers, books and magazines; humming a tune; talking to a hypothetical friend in one’s head; threatening an imaginary enemy with brute force in imagination; possibility of being overwhelmed by a meditative spell while drawing inspiration from the transient sound of dripping water drops in the background.
In short, Mr Gates may have simultaneously recognized the last frontier which human have been so reluctant to conquer so far – the flushed toilet – and the possibility of someone coming up with an ingenious invention to address an index of lingering issues, ranging from heavy usage of water to cost of running it – while spending their time constructively inside a toilet, of course.
Within a year, Mr Gates’ gamble seemed to have paid off; it is a gamble in the sense that the headway made in the flush toilet since its invention by Alexander Cumming, the Scottish mathematician and watchmaker, in 1755 has been just superficial and cosmetic, compared with other devices that we regularly use or take for granted.
My broomstick, for instance, has been through a pretty impressive revolutionary phase within a space of a few decades: a light plastic rod becoming a substitute for heavy wooden bar to keep the Green folks happy and demonize the tree-cutters; the brushes are made from plastic instead of organic materials; the choice of colours being blue or pink to give a feeble sexist outlook.
The compass in the mathematical instrument box in the West, has seen a similar transformation, thanks to a variety of health and safety reasons: the metal pointer is getting shorter in inverse proportion to the hyperactivity of kids, as they may be tempted to use it for a secondary purpose – stabbing a foe in a rage; the revolution of this gadget has gone so far that it is now almost impossible to draw an arc, let alone a circle, using the ‘improved’ version of the compass!
The slow progress made by flush toilet, meanwhile, can be easily attributed to the absence of glamour in it. I can’t think of a time when I last saw a famous model promoting a loo or a scientist placing his or her cherished learning curve next to it, above it or anywhere close to it.
On Thursday, Mr Gates offered $100,000 to a group of scientists from California Institute of Technology who won the first prize for the invention - re-invention, to be more precise. The second and third prizes were won by the University of Loughborough in England and the University of Toronto in Canada respectively.
Although, the CIT team won the first prize, the initial cost of installation of the invention seems to be well over $1000. The running, cost, however, is still low in line with Mr Gates’ initial requirements. The toilet, dubbed Solar-Powered Loo, has been designed to break down faeces and urine into hydrogen gas, which can be stored in fuel cells to provide back-up power to use at night or in low-sunlight conditions; water used to flush the toilet is also recycled.
The Fuel-Producing Lavatory, introduced by the team of English scientists who won $60,000, on the other hand, is capable of turning human faeces into what they call biological charcoal, which in turn can be used as fuel or as a soil conditioner. In addition, it produces clean water too.
The Canadian team who won $37,000 for their Sanitising WC claim their loo is capable of sanitising faeces and urine while recovering resources such as water.
Mr Gates’ keen interest in this particular subject will undoubtedly rekindle a serious curiosity, not only in certain parts of the world where the concept of latrine is still not more than a set of randomly-dug holes in the ground, but also in the developed world where folks stubbornly think that a toilet uses too much water with each flush. Those of us, who were subjected to a hosepipe ban in England up until recently due to a prolonged drought, know all too well about this disturbing fact, over which we have very little control at present.
The disappointingly-sluggish evolution of the flush toilet so far has been limited to the area of contact between the user and the loo, often reflecting the growing waist-size of the users in some part of the world. In this context, it goes without saying why the American loo is popular not only with the Americans, but also with the people in other parts of the world who love their food in excessive quantities.
With Mr Gates at the epicentre and funds in abundance, the rush for reinventing a toilet can go seismic in the coming months, thanks to the interest it has already stirred up around the world.
There is no doubt that the new toilet inventions have the potential to address the sanitary issues of the poor people in the developing world quite efficiently while keeping the need of water to a bare minimum.
However, a significant amount of challenges remains to be overcome, unless Mr Gates spends an equal amount of time – and money too – in educating the very masses that he so sincerely cares about.
A few years ago, a senior officer of an NGO which funded and distributed a sanitised version of toilets with a proper structure and cover in a rural village in South Asia, told me how the peasants converted them to store firewood, instead, after a few months, while switching back to the usual toilet-mode in the open.
For them – especially menfolk - the collective defecation in the open is not only a process of waste elimination, but also a guaranteed way of strengthening the existing social-ties. For women, it is the only time they can share the village gossip or have a laugh together while placing themselves very close to the fabrics of nature; they don’t mind being tickled by a sharp grass blade or the terminals of a shrub, as the set of temporary inconveniences is fully worth it.
The process of answering the call of nature, however, is something which can easily be affected by subtle emotions, whether you live in the West, East or in the middle of Africa. Therefore, how the peasants are going to react to high-tech gadgets remains to be seen, despite the commendable effort made by Bill & Melinda Foundation in the field.
As a matter of fact, we all know from our undocumented experiences, when it comes to answering the call of nature that the effort always tends to defeat itself in the presence of strange objects. This is something that the scientists have to keep in mind while coming up with ingenious devices to address the toilet issues in the poor parts of the world.
- Asian Tribune -