Bill Gates: Toilet Evangelist

Microsoft founder's foundation spearheads effort to promote sanitary disposal of human waste

Microsoft founder Bill Gates became a multibillionaire by making computers a common fixture in households and businesses around the globe.

Now the software entrepreneur's charitable organization hopes to turn the same trick with a device that most Westerners take for granted, but which is a rarity in two-thirds of the world.

(Also see: Bill Gates gives another $100M to fund polio vaccination)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced an initiative to promote the spread of safe and affordable sanitation in developing nations:

In a keynote address at the 2011 AfricaSan Conference in Kigali, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation’s Global Development Program, called on donors, governments, the private sector, and NGOs to address the urgent challenge, which affects nearly 40 percent of the world’s population. Flush toilets are unavailable to the vast majority in the developing world, and billions of people lack a safe, reliable toilet or latrine. More than a billion people defecate in the open.

"No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet," Burwell said in her speech at AfricaSan. "What we need are new approaches. New ideas. In short, we need to reinvent the toilet."

This is no joke. Poor sanitation is a leading cause of disease and death in underdeveloped nations. Anyone who has traveled through poor nations can attest to the abysmal conditions facing their impoverished citizens every single day. There's literally no escape.

According to the Foundation, 1.5 million children die annually from diarrheal disease. Proper sanitation, in conjunction with safe drinking water (another big problem) and improved hygiene could prevent "most of these deaths," the Foundation said in a statement.

The Gates's aren't just proselytizing. They're putting money behind the effort:

* A $3 million grant supporting eight universities in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America to finance efforts to "reinvent the toilet as a stand-alone unit without piped-in water, a sewer connection, or outside electricity—all for less than 5 cents a day."

* $42 million in new sanitation grants designed to "spur innovations in the capture and storage of waste, as well as its processing into reusable energy, fertilizer, and fresh water."

Beyond the obvious humanitarian aspects of this endeavor, the Foundation notes that proper sanitation is a sound economic investment, citing a World Health Organization study showing that each dollar invested can return $9 by making people healthier and more productive. Better sanitation cuts health care costs and reduces illness, disease, disability and premature death.

Say what you will about Gates and his business practices as co-founder and long-time CEO of Microsoft -- and fellow co-founder Paul Allen recently had plenty to say, not much of it positive -- the guy is trying to use some of his wealth these days to accomplish some good. You've got to give him that much.

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