(Second in a series from a recent Duke visit to IIT Gandhinagar.)

“That just proves women really do always go to the restroom in pairs!” our tour guides chuckled as my colleague Minnie Glymph and I paused for this photo.

Laura Brinn, left, of Duke Global Communications, and Minnie Glymph of the Pratt School of Engineering lacking privacy.

Laura Brinn, left, of Duke Global Communications, and Minnie Glymph of the Pratt School of Engineering lacking privacy.

Jokes aside, their comment had some important truth to it. We were not where we can usually be found, on campus in Durham, where clean water and safe restrooms are abundant.

Instead we were in Ahmedabad, India, where our hosts told us that 25% of the estimated 7.3 million people living in the city’s slums do not have regular access to running water and restroom facilities, even at school or work. In areas where communal toilets are available, people may  have to wait in line for 15-20 minutes, as up to 2,000 residents share eight restroom stalls. And, some facilities simply aren’t safe spaces for women and girls. With no other options, many resort to relieving themselves in the open.

The lack of sanitary methods for waste disposal leads to public health problems, including diarrheal disease, which claims a child’s life every three to four minutes in India. These conditions are also linked to high workplace absenteeism rates due to illness and an estimated 15-25% middle school dropout rate (depending on the region) for girls who have reached menstruation and do not have access to private and clean restroom facilities.

The Duke-designed demonstration toilet in Ahmedabad, India.

The RTI- and Duke-designed demonstration toilet in Ahmedabad, India.

The restroom that served as our photo backdrop is an experimental toilet created by researchers at RTI International, Duke and Colorado State University, one of 16 teams funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Reinvent the Toilet Challenge to address sanitation needs on a global scale. (Duke has two funded projects, the Ahmedabad model led by electrical engineering professor Jeff Glass and another system created by civil & environmental engineering professor Marc Deshusses.)

Although Minnie and I visited this toilet where it was developed on a modern university campus in a lush and leafy section of Ahmedabad, restrooms like this one could soon become a common site in Ahmedabad’s slums, as its creators begin testing in real-world situations to help them understand user preferences and potential barriers to adoption.

The challenge of developing a low-cost, low-maintenance toilet that can be widely deployed is significant, requiring expertise in fields such as engineering, disinfection, human behavior, manufacturing and social marketing to make sure the community feels comfortable using the facility.

Brian Stoner of RTI and Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering hosted our visit with his RTI colleague Myles Elledge, and explained that the collaborative effort has brought together not only RTI researchers, but also Duke engineering faculty, Colorado State University combustion experts, local Indian engineering firms and a major Indian women’s union.

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Students in Duke’s Master of Engineering Management program have also contributed design engineering work, developing business models for deploying the toilet in India. The current targeted cost for the self-contained system is $2,500 for a unit serving 30-50 users per day, and the project leaders hope to start testing it in additional field locations by fall 2016.

Although the health benefits of improved sanitation are clear, Stoner and Elledge emphasized that improving safety and dignity are also important outcomes for this work. With much of the engineering work now behind them, they are anxious to better understand the human factors that will determine the toilet’s ultimate success or failure.

For more information about this project and the team behind it, visit abettertoilet.org.

Laura BrinnGuest Post from Laura Brinn, Duke Global Communications