In Stockholm, sanitation expert rocks the potty

Bindeshwar Pathak introduces a toilet that can save not only water but also human lives, flushing away a common means of spreading infectious disease.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
Bindeshwar Pathak demonstrates the Sulabh effluent treatment technology. Sulabh International Social Service Organisation

When talking toilets, it's easy to succumb to potty humor and puns (see headline), but the news out of Stockholm is no joke. Indian sanitation expert Bindeshwar Pathak was honored for his revolutionary toilet with the Stockholm Water Prize at the World Water Week conference held in Stockholm last week.

The Sulabh (translation: "easily available") is a twin-pit, pour-flush toilet (you pour the water yourself) that employs two tanks for waste storage. It does double duty as both a sustainable alternative (it uses less than a third of a gallon of water instead of almost three gallons per flush, and the waste can be recycled into fertilizer) and a sanitary one (reducing the risk of spreading infectious disease through open-air defecation or those notoriously disgusting bucket toilets).

The Sulabh's cost adjusts according to each family's budget, starting as low as $15 and topping out at $1,000.

Since 1970, the Sulabh Sanitation Movement has equipped more than 1.2 million households with low-flush toilets and installed 7,500 public toilets across the country. There is even a Sulabh Museum of Toilets and a Sulabh Prayer. Still, about 70 percent of Indians (more than 700 million people) lack access to basic sanitation, according to the organization.

The movement has campaigned in India, Afghanistan, and the Kingdom of Bhutan for Pathak's latest twin-pit invention and improvements in sanitation in general. As awareness of the health problems of open-air defecation grows, so does the number of Indians willing to pay the $1 monthly charge to access those public toilets, which are staffed around the clock and equipped with baths and clean drinking water.

In his acceptance speech, Pathak made significant mention of Indians who suffer from not only disease, but also a lack of personal dignity:

For more than four decades, I have been striving to fulfill the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi for a clean India, free from dirt and filth and restoration of human rights and dignity of a section called "untouchables" in India before Independence who were cleaning toilets and carrying human feces to earn their livelihood, a profession which was a blot upon our civilization. Because of these (toilets), millions of human scavengers who were subjected to insult, humiliation and drudgery, have been relieved from the sub-human occupation and brought into the mainstream of Indian society.

It's quite remarkable that something so simple can be so revolutionary. At least when it comes to the Sulabh, no one should feel guilty for sitting on a good idea.