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ImpactWater & Sanitation

How Poo-Powered Electricity is Saving Thousands of Lives in India

Photo credit: UN Photo. Martine Perret

In 2015, the United Nations called for an end to one of the biggest killers across the globe: open defecation. The practice, caused by poor sanitation and unsafe water, kills more children, some 1.4 million per year, than measles, malaria, and AIDS combined. Flies breeding and feeding on the feces are one of the main reasons why open defecation causes such a high death toll; one gram of feces can contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, and 1,000 parasitic cysts.

Nearly 950 million people still routinely practice open defecation and 569 million of them live in India. The impact it has on the country is shocking: diarrhea kills over 117,000 children under age five each year and, in 2016, 39% of Indian children under age five were stunted due to malnutrition caused by chronically infected intestines.

To address this urgent crisis the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi committed to put a toilet in every household and school in India by 2019 — a commitment Modi reiterated in his remarks on stage at the 2014 Global Citizen Festival. That same year, the first Waislitz Global Citizen Award winner was announced. Canadian born engineer, Anoop Jain, was awarded the annual cash prize of $100,000 to support his mission to tackle India’s sanitation crisis.

And as the BBC reported earlier this month, Jain and his fellow social entrepreneurs, Prabin and Chandan Kumar, are making brilliant progress with their project: Sanitation and Health Rights in India (SHRI). Just a few years later they have built five community sanitation facilities. These public toilets serve 4,000 daily users. Yet that isn’t even the best part of it.

Read more: Investing in innovation: A conversation with Alex Waislitz and Anoop Jain

Many of the state-run toilets have encountered issues when it comes to maintenance and waste disposal. Instead of clearing the waste, SHRI toilets channel it into a biodigester, creating methane gas. This gas is then used as electricity to power a water filtration system. The filtered water is then bottled and sold for half a rupee ($0.02) a litre. Every month Shri sells nearly 100,000 liters of safe drinking water.

The water sales generate revenue that help ensure the facilities are always well-maintained — a key predictor of sustained toilet use. Check out this video to hear the entrepreneurs explain their life-saving idea.

Beyond getting rid of the dangerous waste, providing safe drinking and hand washing water, and keeping the toilets in a condition that people will actually want to use, there’s one last piece of the complex sanitation puzzle the innovators also thought of.

As the construction stage  begins, they run an awareness campaign in the village. This is a crucial step in ending open defecation, because it helps overcome widespread cultural barriers to changing sanitation habits.

Shri needs help, however, to ensure that their poo-powered innovation reaches the 596 million in need in India. Currently, SHRI offsets nearly 50% of its monthly facility costs through the sale of safe drinking water, closing the “gap” relies on the generosity of funders.

Which is why today is the launch of a crowdfunding campaign to raise the required money.

We look forward to seeing this innovation, and others like solar powered toilets, drive much needed progress on the most neglected of the sustainable development goals and bring an end to the fatal practice of open defecation.

Global Citizen campaigns on ending open defecation and you can take action on this issue here.