Did you know that Tuesday is the first World Toilet Day designated by the United Nations? Imagine the party favors.
The aim of the cheeky designation is to raise awareness about the critical need for global sanitation. Dozens of advocacy groups around the world are inviting the public to start an online fundraiser, sign a virtual bathroom wall and watch a singing toilet video.
Of the world’s 7 billion people, about 6 billion have mobile phones, but only 4.5 billion have access to toilets or latrines, according to the United Nations. That leaves about 2.5 billion people without basic sanitation, making them vulnerable to disease.
New York City resident John Kluge wanted to address that gap. Several years ago on a trip to Darfur in western Sudan, he was surprised to see the refugee camps had better sanitation than the next town over in the Central African Republic, where fighting between the army and rebel groups had displaced more than 200,000 people. He looked into the issue more and realized how massive the needs were.
John Kluge, center, collaborates with other sanitation advocates John Feighery of mWater, left, and John Sauer of Water for People. Photo by Laura Hajar for Toilet Hackers
In September 2012, Kluge co-founded the nonprofit Toilet Hackers to bring “dignified sanitation” to all.
“Sanitation is really the largest global health challenge we’re facing today, yet it is the most neglected,” he said.
The reluctance of people to talk about human waste has had an effect even in advocacy circles, where NGOs tend to focus on the clean water aspect of the problem, rather than sanitation and hygiene, he said. “It’s easy to identify with what we drink every day. It’s harder to identify with the thing that we don’t talk about every day but we all do.”
Kluge, who besides being co-founder of Toilet Hackers is also its chief disruption officer, admits that although sanitation might be an unsavory topic, it’s one of life and death. “One child dies every 17 seconds due to lack of sanitation, unclean water and poor hygiene,” notes his website.
But the solution isn’t to give everyone a toilet, he said. Traditional sewage systems that run on water aren’t practical in places where water is scarce.
Therefore, more innovation is needed in areas such as waterless technologies and the use of mobile phones for monitoring sanitation systems, said Kluge. Toilet Hackers holds “hackathons” to bring together sanitation specialists to try to think of new solutions to the problem.
People have been working on the problem for decades, he noted, but “sometimes when you’re in a space for a long time, you tend to get blinders on. So we need some fresh blood and we need some new thinking to work together with those who have been doing this for so long.”
Kluge cited as an example of waterless technology a special kind of toilet where the waste goes into a bag. Then the person steps on a pedal to seal the bag, which is stored in a compartment under the toilet, where it is composted and disposed.
Another opportunity for innovation is in India, where an estimated 600 million people defecate in the open, he said. That’s “a lot of waste that is literally being wasted. If you can capture a small fraction of that and start harvesting it to produce methane-based electricity — if done right, you can produce pretty good power.”
Toilet Hackers helped with a school latrines and hygiene training program for 800 students in the town of Isiolo in central Kenya.
Kluge’s group also works with other established organizations in the field to test new products, and organizes concerts and art exhibits to try to make the issue less taboo.
In 10 years, said Kluge, if even 10 percent of the problem can be addressed with new models, governments could use that information to scale up projects in their own countries and attract investors who already are aware of the tremendous need.
Once the solution is in the can, so to speak, “I would like to go home in 10 years and switch out and do something else,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as a plumber for the rest of my life.”