Just What India Needs - a Green Toilet

Berlin-based Israeli engineer designs a product the slums can afford.

The lack of toilets and other proper sanitation facilities in India, which forces many Indians, even in cities, to relieve themselves outdoors, takes a heavy toll on the country's economy and public health. An Israeli designer is now completing a project of mobile toilets for slums and densely populated areas with no sewage system.

Noa Lerner, a Berlin-based industrial engineer, is advancing a mobile public toilet due to be launched in five months in urban slums in India and Kenya.

Noa Lerner
Ofer Vaknin

Lerner, who is currently visiting Israel, says her interest in the problem began after visiting India and discovering the absence of public toilets even in the centers of large cities.

Sulabh International, a social service organization in India, says more than 700 million people out of a population of more than a billion lack basic sanitation facilities such as indoor toilets linked to a proper sewage system.

The lack of proper sanitation creates major health risks, raising the threat of potentially fatal illnesses such as typhoid and malaria.

Sulabh says one of the reasons for this, beyond the absence of infrastructure, is people's lack of awareness of the health and environmental implications.

The solution Lerner is promoting is the X-Runner toilet, specifically designed for slums, where the population does not own the land, lives in small, crowded spaces and where a sewage system is nonexistent.

River, New Delhi, India - AP - 16.4.11

Every day, slum dwellers are forced to defecate on the streets or in open fields nearby, with children and poor households bearing the brunt of the growing sanitation crisis.

"When I went on a sanitation tour in India, our guide in the city of Varanasi said he didn't have a toilet at home. That's when I realized we must start from the top, with the slightly better-off class in the slum areas and expand to other groups," says Lerner. "For this purpose we had to create a product with a brand identity that would draw attention and interest," she says.

The final product consists of an upper part resembling an ordinary toilet bowl, placed over a container in which the secretions are collected, with a mechanism enabling insulation to block bad odor. It is covered with a plastic layer with odor-repellant and anti-bacterial substances, so will not require a large amount of water to wash the bowl. Every few days the container can be emptied into a neighborhood collection facility, and natural decomposition will turn the secretions into methane gas, which can be used as an energy source or fertilizer.

The project is based on existing methods, Lerner says, citing the chamber pots used in certain places. Companies managing public services in India and Kenya can take part in the project and set up facilities for emptying the mobile toilet containers. For example, Sulabh, which is assisting the project, is operating various methods of providing services to Indian slums.

X-Runner people are now enlisting more investors for the project's experimental stage, due to be launched in India's capital, New Delhi, and Kenya's capital, Nairobi.

If the experimental stage, which will involve a few dozen families, succeeds, the mobile toilets will be sold or rented to residents in various areas. The price will include removal services, Lerner says.