Slums, gadgets, and public health: technologies that could save the world’s poorest

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Slums, gadgets, and public health: technologies that could save the world’s poorest

The population growth in the world’s largest slums is matched only by the prevalence of disease, but that may soon change. Photo: Cassandra Nelson for Mercy Corps.

Dharavi, Neza-Chalco-Itza, Orangi Town – the population growth in some of the world’s largest slums is matched only by the prevalence of disease. But that may change soon.

An estimated 863 million people live in slums -- most of them in the developing world.

Slums are a huge problem in developing countries. Crumbling infrastructure and a lack of urban planning have resulted in rampant disease that cripples the lives of many inhabitants, preventing them from holding down employment and raising their socioeconomic status.

Fortunately, some organizations, companies and governments are designing new solutions to handle the lack of infrastructure, as well as ensure slum expansion is planned and orderly. These efforts promise to help reduce the spread of disease in the future.

Inventing a workaround

Slums call up images of sprawling, unplanned, impermanent structures – of a population packed into tight spaces and tiny, ramshackle homes. Because of confined living spaces, inhabitants are closely affected by the lifestyles of those around them.

Most slums lack even the most basic sanitation. Raw sewage flows past doorways and a single water tap might have to serve dozens of families.

“Residents live in outrageously crowded slums… there are few, if any, government services with regard to sanitation, water, security, and emergency response. These were the most desperate living conditions I ever had seen," says Emory University professor Rob Breiman of his time in Dhaka.

Two of the greatest sanitation problems in slums are human waste and wastewater. The World Health Organization estimates that 2.4 billion people worldwide do not have access to basic toilet amenities.

The absence of electricity, toilets, and sewage systems means that residents are inescapably surrounded by disease – typhoid, cholera and malaria are all particularly aggressive and common.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is championing this cause with its ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’. On March 22, the Indian branch of the challenge selected six teams to develop a toilet that will doesn’t depend on pipes or huge treatment plants. In fact these toilets are entirely energy self-sufficient.

A team from ERAM Scientific and The University of South Florida developed a solar-powered, stand-alone toilet that boasts its own biological treatment system. In addition to reducing open-air sewage, the toilet shows its genius by being entirely self-sufficient – it automatically charges, flushes, and cleans the immediate vicinity.

To say this is a big deal is an understatement. Private toilets are nonexistent in slums, and public toilets are scarce. For example, in the Mumbai slum of Ganesh Murthy Nagar, one toilet served 10,000 residents until recently.

Increased toilet availability and functionality would immediately impact open-air waste and disease. 

But smart city planning can create also an environment in which disease cannot become a devastating public health issue.

Planning for a healthy future

'Smart' urban planning is trending in the developed world.

Slum growth is determined by the availability of peripheral land and the growth of population in slums -- the result is a lack of urban planning, infrastructure and monitoring.

'Smart cities' conjures images of robots, electrical cars, all-encompassing Wi-Fi coverage. But in the developing world, smart cities are about monitoring infrastructure and quickly repairing problems.

Real-time reactions

In a ‘self-monitoring’ slum, sensors would monitor important utilities, such as water pipes and electricity grids. For example, if a pipe break, the sensor would report the failure immediately, so that a quick repair is possible.

Self-monitoring technology can also be used to collect data to identify critical infrastructure problems. In Kibera, Kenya, the Map Kibera project created detailed maps of the slum’s streets, which led to reduced traffic congestion.

According to a 2010 McKinsey report, "Given that 70 to 80 percent of the India of 2030 is yet to be built, India has a unique opportunity to pursue its urban development.”

This wave of self-monitoring technologies could radically reduce disease by providing real-time reports on damaged infrastructure – water sources are one example of this. Real-time assessments of water quality could save the lives of millions.

Working with where you are

Another plan to improve slum life is "smart" homes.

Because a typical slum shack crams large families into confined spaces, inventing a home that reduces disease is incredibly important for stopping disease from spreading.

The iShack is one of these inventions. This smart shack was created in at Stellenbosch University by Prof. Mark Swilling, and Andreas Keller, a sustainable development student, as an upgrade to the slum home – the Enkanini Informal Settlement in Stellenbosch, South Africa, served as an inspiration.

The iShack is fireproof, features roof-mounted solar panels, and, perhaps most importantly, is inexpensive. One of the most important attributes of this home is a roof designed to collect rainwater for drinking. Like many slums, Enkanini has few water sources – there are about 139 people for every tap. As far as energy needs go, no grid, no problem -- solar panels are more efficient than ever before.

Thinking big

Each year, millions die in the developing world due to preventable infectious diseases, many of which are exacerbated by living in slums. Preventing disease outright is a tall order, however through promising new technologies in sanitation and energy, we may see a healthier, more prosperous life for many inhabitants of slums -- and that means a chance to raise their socioeconomic status.

“For the low-individual, the opportunity to move out of a slum represents a rare opportunity to create wealth,” says Nishant Lalwani of the Global Innovation Fund.

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