Inventing a new lavatory would make a huge difference to people's lives

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has come in for quite a lot of stick in Catholic circles recently – including an almost unheard of put down from the Vatican’s newspaper itself – over its support for artificial birth control, so it is nice to see (not for the first time) that they are also supporting some very worthwhile initiatives that could make a huge difference for Africa.

I speak of sanitation. 

In Africa, there are several forms of sanitation. There are European style and standard bathrooms and lavatories in a small, very small, number of houses. In Kenya, for example, at a guess, less than five per cent of the population would have access to what is called a “flush toilet”. The reasons for this is simple: most houses do not have running water. Water is collected from a standpipe and perhaps carried over a long distance. Even where a house does have running water, that water usually comes from a borehole, rather than from “mains.”


Thus, even where there is piped water, there may not be a flush lavatory, on the grounds that water is simply too valuable and scarce to waste in this way. One may find what is called a pit latrine, usually known as a “longdrop” – a very deep hole in the ground, surmounted by a small corrugated iron shed. While longdrops are supposed to be OK, they frequently are anything but. They can stink to high heaven.

There may well be chemical lavatories in Africa, but I never came across them; I imagine that the chemicals used, in what is essentially no more than a bucket, are expensive.

Then there is the bush itself – out in the wilds, people just disappear into the undergrowth. This is of course not possible in very populated places, where there is usually no lavatory, flush or longdrop, to speak of. In the slums of Nairobi, people use a plastic bag for their bodily needs and then fling it away, usually over the next house, where it may well land on someone. This is jocularly known as a “flying toilet”.

Whichever way, none of this is very satisfactory: bad smells are unpleasant; bad sanitation causes disease; and where there is European style sanitation, it wastes water. Hence the idea of inventing some new system  which is cheap, safe, and environmental is to be welcomed. This could make a huge difference to people’s lives – after all, everyone needs to go to the lavatory.

I mentioned earlier that the Gates Foundation has form in his field – they have of course made sterling efforts to help overcome the scourge of malaria, which has already been eradicated in many continents, and could with the right will be eradicated in Africa too. 

As with lavatories, so with malaria – what is needed here is not shed loads of cash (the track record of such aid is not good) but human inventiveness and will. Malaria is best fought with nets, which are cheap, and the new Gates Loo (if it ever comes) is designed to be cheap too.