To save lives, an Indian doctor rethinks the toilet

Aug 23, 2009 by Sebastien Buffet
Bindeshwar Pathak (left), receives the Stockholm Water prize from Swedish Prince Carl Philip at the Town Hall in Stockholm, on August 20. Bindeshwar is the founder of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement in India.

By rethinking the humble toilet, Indian sanitation expert Bindeshwar Pathak has found a way that can save water -- and lives -- in developing countries.

For four decades, His Sulabh Sanitation Movement has equipped more than 1.2 million households with eco-friendly toilets and installed 7,500 public lavatories across India.

Yet almost three out of four Indians, or around 700 million people, still have no access to basic sanitation.

This leads to up to half a million deaths each year, Pathak, 66, told AFP at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm, where he was awarded this year's Stockholm Water Prize for his groundbreaking work.

To lower the risk to human health, Pathak developed a twin-pit, pour-flush toilet known as the Sulabh, that uses a pair of tanks to store waste matter with no smell or soil pollution, pending recycling as fertiliser.

It uses significantly less water than a standard toilet, Pathak said.

"It requires only 1.0 to 1.5 liters to flush instead of 10 liters," he said. "It saves trillions of litres of water each year."

The idea is to discourage both open-air defecation and the use of bucket toilets -- options that ramp up the risk of the spread of disease and .

"People have died of cleaning the bucket toilets," Pathak explained.

When a Sulabh is sold to households, its price is adjusted according to a family's ability to pay. The poorest families pay 15 dollars (10 euros) whereas richer families can be asked to pay up to 1,000 dollars.

The Sulabh Sanitation Movement's campaign to raise awareness of health issues has also seen more and more Indians prepared to pay user charges for its 7,500 public toilets.

Staffed 24 hours a day, they cost one dollar a month to use them by subscription -- with an exemption for slum dwellers, women and children.

"For the whole month, you can go to the toilet, you can have a bath, you can drink water," Pathak said.

The Sulabh has been exported to Afghanistan and Bhutan, and there are also plans to ship some to 15 other countries, most of them in Africa.

"I feel very happy because what we have been doing for the last 40 years, now it feels that we are going in the right direction," Pathak told AFP.

As the winner of the Stockholm Water Prize, Pathak receives a cheque for 150,000 dollars (104,700 euros) in recognition of his work to conserve and improve public health.

(c) 2009 AFP

Explore further: White House warns climate inaction could cost US billions

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Flushing toilet takes medical prize

Jan 19, 2007

Public sanitation, including the flushing toilet, was picked as the greatest medical breakthrough since 1840 in an international poll released in London.

Human waste feeds rest stop greenhouse

Aug 31, 2005

A new Vermont highway rest stop has blue water in the toilets as part of a "green" system that uses tropical plants to cleanse and recycle sewage water.

Latrines trounce toilets

Jun 17, 2008

While Americans may consider flush-and-forget-it indoor plumbing to be the pinnacle of sanitary science, the lowly latrine could be a far better solution for many parts of the developing world, say researchers at Michigan ...

Safe water? Lessons from Kazakhstan

Apr 29, 2008

Despite significant efforts to improve access to safe water and sanitation, a new report co-authored by an expert at The University of Nottingham, argues that much more needs to be done.

UV lotion lights the way to cleaner facilities

May 11, 2008

A team of Canadian scientists using a lotion which glows under ultraviolet light have shown that up to a third of patient toilets are not properly cleaned. Their findings, published in BioMed Central’s journal, BMC Infectious Di ...

Recommended for you

Malaysia air quality 'unhealthy' as haze obscures skies

5 hours ago

Air quality around Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur and on Borneo island was "unhealthy" on Tuesday, with one town reaching "very unhealthy" levels as haze—mostly from forest fires in Indonesia—obscured skies.

Worldwide water shortage by 2040

5 hours ago

Two new reports that focus on the global electricity water nexus have just been published. Three years of research show that by the year 2040 there will not be enough water in the world to quench the thirst of the world population ...

User comments : 16

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Edylc
3.4 / 5 (5) Aug 23, 2009
That's pretty cool.
Toilets are the dumbest designs ever for something to pee and poop in.
Just imagine, if something from another world that had a major lack of water showed up and saw that we poop into fresh water, we would look like major A-holes.
( I cant help but to look at everything from a sci-fi stand point, sorry )
docknowledge
2 / 5 (3) Aug 23, 2009
Totally agree with Edylc. Just step back, tilt yer head sideways and *look* at the things. Perfectly in place in a steampunk novel.
henryjfry
4 / 5 (4) Aug 23, 2009
I don't think initiatives such as this should be confined solely to the 3rd world. There is talk of possible future water crisis and moving away from water flushing toilets in the west might help that and it would certainly save energy and water in the mean time, which can't be a bad thing.
Technologies like this are investments in the future even if you don't believe in global warming.
ThomasS
5 / 5 (3) Aug 23, 2009
Goes to show one man can have a huge impact.
Arkaleus
1 / 5 (1) Aug 23, 2009
That's great! Now that Mr. Sulabh is "rich" he'll have to pay $1,000 for his outhouse.
N_O_M
4 / 5 (6) Aug 23, 2009
India definitely needs this. I've travelled by train in India, the train toilets were a hole in the floor. But worse was arriving to a city in the morning, large numbers of people squatting to crap beside the tracks.
Mandan
3.4 / 5 (5) Aug 23, 2009
"Water? Like in a toilet?"

'Idiocracy'
NickFun
5 / 5 (2) Aug 23, 2009
I hope his name does not become synonymous like Thomas Crapper. We could use his device here in Calif.
E_L_Earnhardt
3 / 5 (2) Aug 23, 2009
New designs for "space ship toilets" are needed on earth!
Nartoon
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 23, 2009
When everyone says we waste our water they're WRONG. Where does it go after we flush, to the moon or back into the river cleaner than it came out? The only time we 'consume' water is when we water lawns. Now, that's expensive water to flush, why don't we have two sources on water, one for drinking/eating that's totally cleaned and another source that's only minimally treated for safety!
Velanarris
3 / 5 (2) Aug 24, 2009
When everyone says we waste our water they're WRONG. Where does it go after we flush, to the moon or back into the river cleaner than it came out? The only time we 'consume' water is when we water lawns. Now, that's expensive water to flush, why don't we have two sources on water, one for drinking/eating that's totally cleaned and another source that's only minimally treated for safety!

Because people are too dumb to use separate sources properly and will end up infecting themselves and their children with substandard water-born diseases.
Sean_W
1 / 5 (1) Aug 24, 2009
It sounds nice but it is hard to envision the design. The amount of water used sounds very low. Say what you want about Western water toilets but we don't risk cholera from cleaning them because they are so efficient at removing the waste that cholera and other G.I. pathogens don't spread. Before flush toilets our cities were swimming in disease. Even our "best" low-flow toilets in the West get clogged up if used by a full size adult. If these new toilets are supposed to be odorless, what separates the waste from the air and how does such little water transport the waste past that separation?
Mesafina
not rated yet Aug 25, 2009
Water depletion is a real risk in theory. To understand it you only have to consider that 70% of the world's surface is covered with ocean. That means in theory 70% of rainfall turns freshwater into saltwater. It takes time for freshwater reservoirs to build up, so there is a net loss if we consume it faster then it can replenish. This is what is happening in India atm.

Of course we can easily solve this problem by throwing lots of energy at it through desalinization. Saudi Arabia actually uses this method to provide much of it's freshwater today.
Velanarris
5 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2009
Here's a better idea, flush with salt water and have the waste water plant handle desalinization.
MrFred
not rated yet Aug 30, 2009
Lets all just go poop in the bushes and then we won't use any water...
I think the first issue that needs to be addressed is sanitation. Once people are pooping where they should be, then you can worry about using less water to flush it. After all, they are not pooping in the streets due to a lack of flushing water are they!! Hello!
Don't get me wrong, water conservation is a good thing but it has very little to do with the where and why of pooping practices in third world countries!
BTW, how many toilets would that $150,000 buy for India?
david_42
5 / 5 (1) Aug 30, 2009
Toilets like this exist in millions of recreation vehicles all over the world. Mine uses less than a liter per flush for solids and maybe 50 ml for liquids.