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This is an article about sanitation and human waste management, but first, let me tell you about the time I found myself face to face with a pig.

I was teaching English in rural China through the Education and Science Society in 2005. One day, we visited a student’s home. His family (like many others) lived in a yaodong, which is a shelter carved out of the side of a mountain, often decorated with nothing more than old newspapers and a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling (much like the one pictured below). During the visit, I had to use the bathroom. They pointed me to a small space dug into side of the mountain with muddy walls, a makeshift fence, and a 2-foot-deep hole in the dirt as my “toilet.” As I scrunched myself into the opening, I heard a loud snort. There, on the other side of the fence, stood a pig whose snout was a little more than a foot away from mine. I felt like we were intruding in each other’s space, which was probably how the family felt every time they had to use the toilet. 

The remarkable thing is that this was the cleaner of the "bathrooms" I used while on the trip. There were huts with nothing more than a ditch in the ground, where everyone had to squat next to each other to do their business. The waste would collect and presumably get scooped up and hosed off somewhere once or twice a day.

The lack of proper toilets is not uncommon. According to the World Health Organization's March 2012 report, 2.4 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. This leads to poor waste and water management. In the developing world, 90% of human waste is dumped directly into water sources without any treatment. The exposure to contaminated water leads to 2 million deaths per year, of which 1.4 million are children, mostly under the age of 5. That’s 5,500 people dying per day due to the lack of sanitation facilities. More children die a day from sanitation-related illnesses than from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

Why are we not installing more toilets? The current toilet we have is inefficient, using 3.5 to 7 gallons of water each time we flush. Many of the places where the issue is rampant don’t have water or electricity to spare. The sewage system as we know it is too expensive to implement in rural areas. It is a United Nations Millenium Development Goal to halve the portion of the world without basic sanitation by 2015, but with half of the population in developing areas still without this necessity, the goal seems out of reach.

In response to this, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is investing $42 million to develop toilets that do not require electricity, plumbing water, or a sewage system. Some interesting ideas include toilets that turn waste into electricity or bio-charcol. The foundation has also funded Waste Enterprisers in Ghana with a $1.5 million grant to develop a method to turn human waste into biodeisel.

It’s not just the Gates Foundation getting involved, either. The World Toilet Organization (yes, the WTO) was founded in 2001 with the goal of forming an international network to educate and advocate for sanitation facility development in areas of need. This year it will host its 12th annual World Toilet Summit in South Africa, bringing together governments, non-profits, businesses and academics to discuss the issues of human waste management around the world.

Sanitation and waste management remain problems plaguing a large portion of the world. To tackle the issue, we need to raise awareness and research new solutions that can be easily implemented and sustainable in developing areas. With 2 million people dying of poor sanitation every year, we can't justify anything less.