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TED Fellows Retreat 2013

Francis de los Reyes: Sanitation is a basic human right

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Warning: This talk might contain much more than you'd ever want to know about the way the world poops. But as sanitation activist (and TED Fellow) Francis de los Reyes asks — doesn't everyone deserve a safe place to go?

- Environmental engineer, sanitation activist
Francis de los Reyes works with cutting-edge microbiological techniques in environmental biotech. But his passion, both professionally and personally, is helping to improve the plight of the world’s 2.5 billion people living without adequate sanitation. Reyes is a TED Fellow. Full bio

I am an engineering professor,
00:12
and for the past 14 years
00:14
I've been teaching crap.
00:17
(Laughter)
00:18
Not that I'm a bad teacher,
00:20
but I've been studying and teaching
00:22
about human waste
00:24
and how waste is conveyed
00:26
through these wastewater treatment plants,
00:27
and how we engineer and design
00:30
these treatment plants so that we can protect
00:32
surface water like rivers.
00:34
I've based my scientific career
00:36
on using leading-edge molecular techniques,
00:39
DNA- and RNA-based methods
00:42
to look at microbial populations in biological reactors,
00:45
and again to optimize these systems.
00:48
And over the years,
00:50
I have developed an unhealthy obsession with toilets,
00:52
and I've been known to sneak into toilets
00:56
and take my camera phone
00:59
all over the world.
01:01
But along the way, I've learned
01:03
that it's not just the technical side,
01:05
but there's also this thing called the culture of crap.
01:08
So for example,
01:12
how many of you are washers
01:13
and how many of you are wipers?
01:16
(Laughter)
01:18
If, well, I guess you know what I mean.
01:22
If you're a washer, then you use water
01:26
for anal cleansing. That's the technical term.
01:29
And if you're a wiper,
01:31
then you use toilet paper
01:34
or, in some regions of the world
01:36
where it's not available, newspaper
01:38
or rags or corncobs.
01:42
And this is not just a piece of trivia,
01:45
but it's really important to understand
01:48
and solve the sanitation problem.
01:50
And it is a big problem:
01:52
There are 2.5 billion people in the world
01:54
who don't have access to adequate sanitation.
01:56
For them, there's no modern toilet.
01:59
And there are 1.1 billion people
02:01
whose toilets are the streets
02:05
or river banks or open spaces,
02:08
and again, the technical term for that is
02:11
open defecation,
02:13
but that is really simply
02:15
shitting in the open.
02:18
And if you're living in fecal material
02:20
and it's surrounding you, you're going to get sick.
02:22
It's going to get into your drinking water,
02:24
into your food, into your immediate surroundings.
02:26
So the United Nations estimates
02:28
that every year, there are
1.5 million child deaths
02:30
because of inadequate sanitation.
02:35
That's one preventable death every 20 seconds,
02:37
171 every hour,
02:41
4,100 every day.
02:44
And so, to avoid open defecation,
02:47
municipalities and cities
02:49
build infrastructure, for example, like pit latrines,
02:51
in peri-urban and rural areas.
02:56
For example, in KwaZulu-Natal
province in South Africa,
02:58
they've built tens of thousands of these pit latrines.
03:01
But there's a problem when you scale up
03:04
to tens of thousands, and the problem is,
03:06
what happens when the pits are full?
03:09
This is what happens.
03:10
People defecate around the toilet.
03:13
In schools, children defecate on the floors
03:15
and then leave a trail outside the building
03:18
and start defecating around the building,
03:21
and these pits have to be cleaned
03:23
and manually emptied.
03:26
And who does the emptying?
03:28
You've got these workers
03:30
who have to sometimes go down into the pits
03:32
and manually remove the contents.
03:35
It's a dirty and dangerous business.
03:37
As you can see, there's no protective equipment,
03:41
no protective clothing.
03:43
There's one worker down there.
03:45
I hope you can see him.
03:46
He's got a face mask on, but no shirt.
03:48
And in some countries, like India,
03:50
the lower castes are condemned
03:53
to empty the pits,
03:55
and they're further condemned by society.
03:58
So you ask yourself, how can we solve this
04:00
and why don't we just build Western-style flush toilets
04:03
for these two and a half billion?
04:06
And the answer is, it's just not possible.
04:09
In some of these areas, there's not enough water,
04:11
there's no energy,
04:14
it's going to cost tens of trillions of dollars
04:15
to lay out the sewer lines
04:17
and to build the facilities
04:19
and to operate and maintain these systems,
04:20
and if you don't build it right,
04:22
you're going to have flush toilets
04:24
that basically go straight into the river,
04:25
just like what's happening in many cities
04:28
in the developing world.
04:30
And is this really the solution?
04:32
Because essentially, what you're doing is
04:34
you're using clean water
04:36
and you're using it to flush your toilet,
04:38
convey it to a wastewater treatment plant
04:40
which then discharges to a river,
04:43
and that river, again, is a drinking water source.
04:44
So we've got to rethink sanitation,
04:47
and we've got to reinvent the sanitation infrastructure,
04:49
and I'm going to argue that to do this,
04:54
you have to employ systems thinking.
04:56
We have to look at the whole sanitation chain.
04:58
We start with a human interface,
05:01
and then we have to think about how feces
05:03
are collected and stored,
05:05
transported, treated and reused —
05:08
and not just disposal but reuse.
05:10
So let's start with the human user interface.
05:13
I say, it doesn't matter if you're a washer or a wiper,
05:15
a sitter or a squatter,
05:19
the human user interface should be clean
05:21
and easy to use, because after all,
05:23
taking a dump should be pleasurable.
05:26
(Laughter)
05:28
And when we open the possibilities
05:31
to understanding this sanitation chain,
05:34
then the back-end technology,
05:36
the collection to the reuse, should not really matter,
05:38
and then we can apply
05:42
locally adoptable and context-sensitive solutions.
05:43
So we can open ourselves to possibilities like,
05:47
for example, this urine-diverting toilet,
05:50
and there's two holes in this toilet.
05:53
There's the front and the back,
05:55
and the front collects the urine,
05:56
and the back collects the fecal material.
05:58
And so what you're doing is
you're separating the urine,
06:00
which has 80 percent of the nitrogen
06:02
and 50 percent of the phosphorus,
06:04
and then that can then be treated
06:06
and precipitated to form things like struvite,
06:08
which is a high-value fertilizer,
06:11
and then the fecal material can then be disinfected
06:13
and again converted to high-value end products.
06:15
Or, for example, in some of our research,
06:19
you can reuse the water by treating it
06:21
in on-site sanitation systems
06:24
like planter boxes or constructed wetlands.
06:26
So we can open up all these possibilities
06:29
if we take away the old paradigm of flush toilets
06:31
and treatment plants.
06:35
So you might be asking, who's going to pay?
06:37
Well, I'm going to argue that governments
06:40
should fund sanitation infrastructure.
06:42
NGOs and donor organizations,
06:45
they can do their best, but it's not going to be enough.
06:48
Governments should fund sanitation
06:51
the same way they fund roads
06:53
and schools and hospitals
06:55
and other infrastructure like bridges,
06:58
because we know, and the WHO has done this study,
07:00
that for every dollar that we invest
07:03
in sanitation infrastructure,
07:05
we get something like three to 34 dollars back.
07:07
Let's go back to the problem of pit emptying.
07:11
So at North Carolina State University,
07:13
we challenged our students to
come up with a simple solution,
07:15
and this is what they came up with:
07:18
a simple, modified screw auger
07:19
that can move the waste up
07:22
from the pit and into a collecting drum,
07:24
and now the pit worker
07:26
doesn't have to go down into the pit.
07:28
We tested it in South Africa, and it works.
07:30
We need to make it more robust,
07:32
and we're going to do more testing
07:34
in Malawi and South Africa this coming year.
07:35
And our idea is to make this
07:37
a professionalized pit-emptying service
07:39
so that we can create a small business out of it,
07:42
create profits and jobs,
07:44
and the hope is that,
07:46
as we are rethinking sanitation,
07:47
we are extending the life of these pits
07:49
so that we don't have to resort
07:53
to quick solutions
07:55
that don't really make sense.
07:56
I believe that access to adequate sanitation
07:58
is a basic human right.
08:02
We need to stop the practice
08:04
of lower castes and lower-status people
08:06
going down and being condemned to empty pits.
08:08
It is our moral, it is our social
08:12
and our environmental obligation.
08:14
Thank you.
08:16
(Applause)
08:18

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About the speaker:

Francis de los Reyes - Environmental engineer, sanitation activist
Francis de los Reyes works with cutting-edge microbiological techniques in environmental biotech. But his passion, both professionally and personally, is helping to improve the plight of the world’s 2.5 billion people living without adequate sanitation. Reyes is a TED Fellow.

Why you should listen

Dr. Francis L. de los Reyes III is a Professor of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, Associate Faculty of Microbiology, and Training Faculty of Biotechnology at North Carolina State University. His research focuses on biological processes and combines modeling, bioreactor experiments, and molecular microbial ecology tools in addressing fundamental and practical issues in environmental biotechnology and environmental engineering. An important area of his research and teaching is water and sanitation in developing countries.

Current and past research projects (funding of ~ $4.5 M in last 10 years) include: quantitative microbial risk assessment of graywater reuse (WRRI), molecular analysis and modeling of the competition between filaments and floc-formers in activated sludge (NSF), analysis of the ecophysiology of nitrifiers and denitrifiers in microbial floc (NSF), optimization of a swine waste treatment system for nitrogen removal (US Department of Agriculture), analysis of the fate of bioagents in landfills (EPA), microbial characterization of landfills (Waste Management, Inc.), molecular techniques for groundwater remedation sites (US DOE/DOD), investigation of foam control methods (Hazen and Sawyer), development of probes for environmentally versatile Bacillus strains (Novozymes Biochemicals, Inc.), improvement of sludge dewatering (NC WRRI), microbial ecology of grease interceptors (CSPA) and the system-wide optimization of wastewater treatment plants using genetic algorithms. 

More profile about the speaker
Francis de los Reyes | Speaker | TED.com