Experts discuss how to tackle sanitation challenges through digital innovations

Date: 9th December 2019

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The Global Toilet Revolution 

By Machrine Birungi

(L – R) Serge Michel, chief editor of Heidi News, Nollaig Forrest, Vice President Firmenich, Umej Singh Bhatia, Permanet representative of Singapore to the United Nations, Dr Elizabeth Wamera, WSSCC technical expert on Water supply, sanitation and hygiene, Amandeep Singh Gill and Philip Morier Genoud. 

GENEVA – Cutting-edge digital tools such as data sensors and robots are the center of a debate on how to improve the way we deal with significant sanitation challenges such as fecal waste management.

Inadequate sanitation, according to the World Health Organization, is responsible for 432,000 diarrheal deaths annually and is a significant factor in several neglected tropical diseases, including intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, and trachoma.

The latest estimates by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme show that 2 billion people still don’t have access to basic sanitation services and 673 million people practice open defecation.

Against the magnitude of the global sanitation crisis, a group of experts and specialists gathered at a panel discussion in Geneva on World Toilet Day. The event called the “the Global Toilet Revolution” was co-organized by the Graduate Institute Geneva along with a news organization in Geneva known as Heidi News.

The conversations, moderated by Serge Michel, Chief Editor of Heidi News, centered on how to create a sanitation infrastructure that not just turns fecal waste into value, but one that ensures access for everyone to clean toilets, running water and wastewater management with a special focus on leaving no one behind.

Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Offices in Geneva, Umej Singh Bhatia, having a discussion with WSSCC’s Elizabeth Wamera

Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Offices in Geneva, Umej Singh Bhatia, spoke about the ‘clean and green strategy,’ an approach that saw Singapore transform into a country with a clean, safe toilet and sanitation for everyone, everywhere, always.

In 2001, the United Nations declared November 19 as UN World Toilet Day, following a proposal by Singapore. The county has since taken up the toilet cause with more efforts emerging from Mr Jack Sim, a citizen from Singapore also known as “Mr Toilet” because of his efforts to improve sanitation around the world.

Mr Bhatia said Singapore’s historic sanitation movement has helped shift the sanitation narrative from a taboo topic to an extremely positive discussion.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been at the forefront, encouraging people across the world to develop and spur demand for transformative sanitation technologies that help separate excreta from human contact hygienically for the most impoverished communities across the world.

According to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, solving the sanitation challenge in the developing world will require breakthrough innovations in technologies as well as systems that are practical, cost-effective, and replicable on a large scale.

Mr Philippe Morier Genoud, Biologist and Founder of Innovative Dry Toilets Systems, explained that he is working on a composting and dry desiccating latrine, which allows fecal content to be reused and returned to the local environment within the sanitation chain.

Elizabeth Wamera, WSSCC’s Technical Expert on Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene, explained how important it is to engage audiences that are often hardest to reach.

“Innovations in sanitation must be designed to serve anyone, anywhere and anytime.” Ms Wamera reminded innovators to map the needs and vulnerabilities but also cautioned that “one solution cannot be adapted to all.”

While acknowledging the importance of digital technologies, Ms Wamera also noted that any interventions to address the sanitation crisis should not compromise the environment. She stressed that the quest for digital innovations to tackle the sanitation challenges should not leave out the voices of ordinary people.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is to ask ourselves, who are we having this conversation with to ensure that no one is left behind,” Ms Wamera said.

Speaking via Livestream link from Pune, India, Ms Cheryl Hicks, Chief Executive Officer of the Toilet Board Coalition, elaborated on the “smart city plan,” which involves the provision of smart, clean and accessible public and community toilets to both resident and floating populations.

Ms Hicks highlighted the use of sensors for toilets and sewage treatment plants, especially to monitor the use of public and community toilets, sewage treatment operations, and infectious disease circulation.” “The digital tools would ensure that the toilets remain clean and hygienic,” she added.

Panelists agreed that there is a need for a clearinghouse where expertise on toilet technologies is shared, concluding that cooperation remains critical to realizing the full social and economic potential of the role of digital technologies in mitigating the sanitation crisis.

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