Monday, October 22, 2007

5.REFLECTION: Nobel Peace Prize for re-inventing toilet!

Common flush toilet with its numerous opulent versions has outlived its relevance! Undoubtedly cynical, it is time that this sixteenth century invention is taken back to the drawing board before it turns out to be a seat of inconvenience. It is neither a outrageous suggestion to shun the existing toilet nor a weird provocation to go back-to-the-cave, but a considered reflection on the flip side of a toilet.

Without doubt, flush toilet has evolved into essential convenience of modern living. No wonder, governments and aid agencies are flushing additional resources to meet the millennium development goal of bringing sanitation to all by 2015. Indian's rural development ministry is working overtime to meet its target of making the entire countryside free of open defecation by 2012.

Without disrespect to those who have yet to possess it, the fact that toilet eludes over a couple of billion potential users worldwide is good news for the planet! How could the world justify the intended conversion of precious freshwater into brown water at each flushing of human excreta? The original toilet design may have gone through several iterations ever since Sir John Harrington had drawn a patent in 1595, the fact that a pre-determined quantity of water makes it functional may turn out to be its nemesis.

It better be so, else the task of providing sanitation to over 66 per cent rural and some 24 per cent city dwellers will be at the cost of cutting down on water supplies from yet-to-be-covered population of over 400 million, scattered across villages and cities in India. However, with each use of the toilet, be it modern push button or the low-cost pour flush version, flushing anywhere between 6 to 15 litres of water providing sanitation is more than just building toilets.

In no way should it be construed that the idea of toilet be ignored. However, the pathologisation of sanitation has seriously overlooked the plain fact that toilet is a function of water that is getting scarcer by the day. Be it the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) or India's Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), the focus on number crunching aims at achieving targets only. Whether or not there is water to keep the system in operation remains at the periphery!

Until this water guzzling technology is reinvented, its recurring cost will exceed the cost of building a toilet in the first place. And the cost will invariably get externalized, either on the ecosystem or on those who await their share of water. Unless sanitation is backed by treatment of wastewater, young children will continue to bear the brunt. Improper disposal of human excreta pollutes water which, coupled with lack of personal hygiene, takes daily tool on some 1,000 children in India.

Need it be said that water management is not only about managing fresh water but about protecting it from getting polluted too. A recent World Bank report laments that only 30 per cent of the wastewater generated in the country is put to any form of treatment. The incremental cost of wastewater polluting additional freshwater sources, be it surface or ground water, may prove costly in the long run.

Designing water frugal toilets with suitable wastewater treatment can no longer be ignored. Attempts at designing waterless and low-water consuming toilets have already been made. Incinolet is one such toilet design that utilises electric heat to turn the fruit of your labours into a tablespoon of germ-free ash. By using microwaves this American invention replaces flushing with incineration. However, its prohibitive cost is deterrent to its mass scale adoption.

Inventor's Peter Soulsby more benign aerobic toilet promises drastic cut down in water use in the loo. Using saw dust and an electric fan to create aerobic conditions, this design consumes 2,500 litres of water per 40,000 sittings, as against 600,000 litres in a conventional flush. However, none of these inventions have been able to replace the conventional toilets that are not only cheap but less complicated too.

Research on creating alternate toilet designs need to be taken on priority such that the 21st century becomes the `century of alternate toilets', much like the 19th century that was called the `century of toilet' when new patents were drawn to help improve the quality of WC that launched several attractive designs in the market. However, this time around a Nobel Peace Prize may be in the waiting for anyone developing an alternate toilet design for widespread adoption. Any takers!

1 comment:

Keith said...

I absolutely support your views, several non-water systems do exist, based on a septic tank and effective ventilation system and fly screens to avoid odours and flies - as in the "Zimbabwe Toilet" and the "Canadian National Parks toilet".

Also, do not overlook Thomas Crapper, who refined the flush loo design (in late 1800s?) and gave his name to to the slang term for the loo: I met his grandson once.