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Bill Gates talks next to a container of human feces during the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing on Nov. 6. Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

At the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing on Nov. 6, Bill Gates committed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to scaling up its investments in new toilet technologies. Eight companies based in India, China, the U.S. and Thailand, which had previously received grants from the foundation, displayed their pathogen-killing toilets and small-scale waste treatment plants that can disinfect fecal sludge.

Why it matters: 4.5 billion people don’t have access to safely managed toilets or still defecate in the open. Lack of safe sanitation leads to diarrhea (a leading cause of death among children under 5), infections such as schistosomiasis and trachoma, and vector-borne diseases such as West Nile virus. There's widespread consensus that greater support from donors such as the foundation and international banks is critical to extending basic sanitation services, especially to the world’s poorest.

Background: Throughout the world, it's the poorest populations who rely most on on-site toilets, which are difficult to keep clean and expensive to empty.

  • Even in cities, extending pipes to such consumers is too expensive — and perhaps impossible in water-scarce areas — so some efforts focus on building toilets that are less reliant on government-run collection and treatment processes.
  • The Gates Foundation has invested more than $200 million in developing toilets not connected to sewage pipes.

Where it stands: 20 companies that had previously received grants from the foundation to develop toilet technologies and prototypes are seeking to commercially license them to municipal governments and local producers, which are key to reaching the urban poor in developing countries.

  • The foundation has pledged an additional $200 million to support R&D and bolster markets for new sanitation products, and it will join forces with the World Bank Group, African Development Bank and Asian Development Bank.
  • The partners together pledged to “unlock $2.5 billion” in financing for citywide sanitation projects, especially those targeting the poorest neighborhoods and households in urban areas.

What to watch: New donor commitments could expand the focus from investing in new technologies to supporting governments in implementing those technologies at scale. While it’s unclear exactly how the partnership will “unlock” the promised $2.5 billion, other partners such as the French Development Bank and UNICEF have also stepped forward, with the former pledging to double its sanitation commitment by 2022.

Tanvi Nagpal is the director of the International Development Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Go deeper

Updated 55 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: Trump received COVID vaccine at White House in January — CDC director warns "now is not the time" to lift COVID restrictions.
  2. Education: More schools are reopening in the U.S.
  3. Vaccine: J&J CEO "absolutely" confident in vaccine distribution goals Most states aren't prioritizing prisons for COVID vaccines — Vaccine hesitancy is shrinking.
  4. Economy: Apple says all U.S. stores open for the first time since start of pandemic — What's really going on with the labor market.
  5. Sports: Poll weighs impact of athlete vaccination.
  6. World: Latin America turns to China and Russia for COVID-19 vaccines.
Dave Lawler, author of World
1 hour ago - World

Latin America turns to China and Russia for COVID-19 vaccines

Several countries in the Americas have received their first vaccine shipments over the past few weeks — not from the regional superpower or from Western pharmaceutical giants, but from China, Russia, and in some cases India.

Why it matters: North and South America have been battered by the pandemic and recorded several of the world’s highest death tolls. Few countries other than the U.S. have the capacity to manufacture vaccines at scale, and most lack the resources to buy their way to the front of the line for imports. That’s led to a scramble for whatever supply is available.

More schools are reopening in the U.S.

Students settle into a classroom in New York City. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

More than 72% of K-12 students are now attending schools that offer in-person or hybrid models of learning.

The big picture: The U.S. is seeing an almost-universal return of schools that were in-person as of November, as well as a gradual return in parts of the country that had been virtual for almost a year.