Monthly Archives: October 2013

Changing The Way The World Poos

In the past few years travelling for the BBC World News series, Horizons, I have travelled to nearly 30 countries and interviewed world famous business and technology leaders such as Jimmy Wales, who founded Wikipedia; Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford and great grandson of Henry Ford and Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto who discovered a new form of Carbon. But amongst all the famous names who have appeared on the programme, there is one man who sticks in my mind more than any other and you won’t have heard of him and probably have not heard of his work.

Dr Doulaye Kone is the Gates foundation’s senior program officer for sanitation. He grew up in rural Ivory Coast and is now spearheading new efforts to reinvent the toilet.

It’s difficult interviewing someone about toilets. We just don’t have the language to discuss it. Kone talked of faecal sludge and I talked of poo – neither seemed to strike the right note; his language seemed stuck in the world of the laboratory and mine was stuck in the world of the nursery. We lacked the words to discuss it without sniggering or sounding overly technical.

The lack of the proper words, wasn’t a minor issue. Partly because we can’t discuss it, we don’t give this issue the attention it deserves and it certainly deserves greater attention.

Across the globe, two and half billion people, including one billion children, do not have access to a clean, safe toilet. According to the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation every 20 seconds , that’s 1.5 million preventable deaths each year.

Doulaye sticks in my mind not just because of the work he is doing but why he is doing it. He grew up in a small African village where a shocking number of his own siblings and close family died as a result of poor sanitation. His neighbours believed the deaths were down to some black magic and they were ostrasized. But Doulaye was a clever child and was given a rare place at a boarding school. As a result he left home and was fed well and went on to secondary school and university, where he was determined to learn about the kind of sanitation engineering that could prevent the deaths like those in his close family,

It was that mission and journey that brought us together to discuss how to change the way the worls poos.

The flush toilet that so many millions of us use, is deceptively complex. To make it work, we need a huge infrastructure of power stations, distributed water supplies, pumping stations, sewage works, and treatment facilities. When we flush the loo, we are calling on the coordinated efforts of thousands of people and millions of pounds of infrastructure investments. Those kind of resources are just not available in many parts of the world.

One answer to this problem would be to build the infrastructure needed in as many places as possible. It would cost billions and probably would never happen. So the other option is to develop toilets would don’t need that kind of investment. It’s about developing appropriate toilet technology for the millions who currently don’t have access to it. That’s what Doulaye and the Gates foundation is doing.

Our programme on santitation doesn’t just look at toilets but how to use human waste; how to use it as a resource to be exploited as opposed to a waste product to be disposed of.

Dealing with human waste is one of the most important public health objective on the planet. Today two-fifths of the world’s population still have nowhere to go to toilet except on open ground. It’s a problem that needs to be tackled and this is one of our most important programmes in highlighting the issue and its possible solutions.

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The Efficiency Problem

ImageAmory Lovins and Me

If Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, were around today, he’d be amazed by the range of technology we have to play with. But he would recognise the way we produce electricity and move it around, because it hasn’t changed that much.

People concentrate on shiny new consumer technologies and rather forget about the less glamorous generation, transmission and efficiency technologies.  But the technologies behind the way we power our modern world is just as important as the products which grab our attention and those efficiency technologies are now undergoing a revolution with the power to change the world.

In this episode of Horizons on BBC World News, we visit Japan, Norway and the US to see the emerging technologies which are enabling us to do more whilst using less power.

Amory Lovins, is the founder and chief scientist at one of America’s leading energy organisations – the Rocky Mountain Institute.  During the 70s oil crisis, he coined the idea of “negawatts”—the notion that we can meet our global energy needs by improving efficiency rather than boosting production. 

He claims “We need to ring three or four times as much work out of the energy we use, so we can get expanding returns.”

To achieve that Lovins believes:  “We should reward our electricity and gas providers for cutting your bill not selling you more energy. We should pay our architects and engineers for what they save not what they spend. We should use what are called feebates – that’s a cross between a fee and a rebate so that when you go to buy a new automobile of whatever class and size you want, depending on how efficient it is within that class, you either get a rebate or pay a fee, which in how big depends on the efficiency but the fees pay for the rebates.”

One country which is having to take a hard look at its energy efficiency is Japan.

After the 2011 earthquake and the Fukushima crisis, Japan shut most of its nuclear power plants. It’s made the power issue more acute than in many other parts of the world.

Japanese engineers believe they lose five percent of energy in transmitting it around the country. And as a result they are looking at new Super-Conductive power lines.  Super-conductivity where electricity flows without resistance has been touted as the holy grail. Now for the first time cables made from superconducting wires are being tested by Sumitomo electric and The Tokyo Electric Power Company which is is now supplying electricity to 70,000 test homes using superconductive cables with cooling systems.

The cables are made from an unlikely material – ceramic which is cooled to minus 200 degrees celsius. Liquid nitrogen flows along the ceramic cable which is encased in a double-layer of stainless steel in a vacuum. It’s the same principle as a thermos flask: no heat can get in from the outside.”

The issues we tackle in this programme lie at the heart of whether we can continue to grow and spread wealth to other nations.  Get it right and we could power our cities well into the 22nd century. Get it wrong and the lights could be going out a lot more often.  

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