Environmental engineer Francis de los Reyes works with cutting-edge microbiological techniques to create solutions in the fields of environmental biotechnology and engineering. But his big passion, both professionally and personally, is finding ways to improve the plight of the world’s 2.5 billion people living without adequate sanitation. In this conversation, he tells the TED Blog about his research, his on-the-ground work to improve living conditions in his native Philippines and beyond — and his ongoing fascination with toilets.
You gave a talk at the TED Fellows Retreat on sanitation. What sparked your interest in that?
Because of who I am and where I grew up, in the Philippines, I’ve seen poverty and slums. My career has been about leading-edge environmental engineering — I’ve been trained to design treatment plants that will work for the industrialized world, and to make them cheaper, better, more efficient. But we can’t ignore the billions of people in the developing countries where that’s not going to work. That’s why we have this problem of lack of adequate sanitation. We’ve studied how to design modern wastewater treatment plants, and forgotten the 2.5 billion who don’t have access to clean toilets. We haven’t really properly considered those problems, and invested the required resources. Of course, it’s all related to poverty, but we haven’t really looked carefully enough at what’s happening. There are people who have been working in this area for a long, long time, and I’m just one of them. Slowly, over the years, it’s become a bigger and bigger part of my research. It was very hard to get funding in water and sanitation research for developing countries. Because it’s not sexy, you know? On the other hand, you can argue that research is not the bottleneck, but its implementation on the ground. Or culture, or social context. Well, I think there’s still a lot of room for research, and I think obviously we need to work on implementation and on the social side of things.
Can you describe the situation in the Philippines, and the scope of the problem?
Actually, the situation in the Philippines is not too bad. The United Nations has, as one of its Millennium Development Goals, to cut in half the proportion of people who don’t have access to adequate sanitation and to clean drinking water, by 2015. These goals were set up in 2000. Well, if you look at the numbers, to cut them in half means to change the percentage for drinking water from 35% to 70%, and for sanitation from 25% to 50%. But, even as improvements have been made — if you look at the raw numbers of people still in need, because of population growth — those 2.5 billion people have remained at 2.5 billion, maybe 2.3 billion. The world actually met the MDG for drinking water last year. But for sanitation, we’re not going to make it. So there will still be these billions of people that won’t have toilets. In the Philippines, they’ve actually met the MDGs. Some countries have met the MDGs for water, but not for sanitation, and in sub-Saharan Africa, and some places in Asia, they’re not going to meet either water or sanitation MDGs. Like in India and China, there’s a lot of open defecation — that’s just part of the culture. Lack of infrastructure is a problem too, of course.
So how are you applying your microbiology research to the situation?
We are coming up with alternative ways of thinking about sanitation problems. Right now, our current paradigm is that we collect waste from houses, and we convey them via miles and miles of sewer systems, using freshwater. We’re collecting all this waste, and then we’re treating them all at a centralized treatment plant, millions of gallons per day. That’s what happens in any major city. Some cities have more than one treatment plant — like New York City has 19 to 23 different plants. And then we treat the wastewater, and then we discharge the treated water to a river. The treatment is quite effective. The quality of the effluent that we discharge is actually, in many cases, cleaner and better than the river water.
So the wastewater treatment industry has done a really good job of cleaning our water, and protecting our health. But that’s not happening in developing countries, where the problems are more immediate, like diarrhea. You’ve got to first solve the important problems. Let’s get the pathogens out, let’s kill the stuff that will make children sick. I think we can use these molecular techniques to look at pathogen destruction in some of the technologies used in developing countries. We’ve focused the research on centralized solutions and centralized technologies, but we can also try to optimize decentralized and appropriate solutions.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>