Hurrying through the Cedar Swamp when you’re trying to make your way to class, I’ve found out the hard way, is not good to do when it’s flooding over from the snowmelt and there’s plenty to slip on. The Northeast Kingdom is blessed with an abundance of water, especially this time of year. However, a report from the World Economic Forum suggests that close to 4 billion people around the world in 2016 face water scarcity, and another 500 million people live in places where water consumption is double the amount replenished by rain for the whole year. All of these alarming numbers are clearly suggestive of one thing—we need to re-think how we use water before the scenario gets any more dire. The nature of resource shortages is simply this—the poor suffer the most.

A few years ago, I set out asking the question of what could change at the home level to address water scarcity. The toilet immediately came to mind; despite its absolute necessity in every building, the fundamental design has remained much the same since the Victorian era. It is a part of the bathroom that is used every day, multiple times a day, and guzzles fresh, potable water with each flush. After a number of failed re-designs, I arrived at one that I prototyped over the course of a few weeks and tested extensively—with a variety of substitutes. My design reduced water consumption by over 70% (potentially more in the US); down to 2 liters (.5 gal) from my 9 (2.5 gal) liter flush back in India. Toilets in the US, on average, use 3.5 gallons per flush. The toilet was an adaptation of the airplane vacuum-assisted flush, but much cheaper—done with a piston chamber introduced in the ‘U’-tube and that extended to a sort of ‘W’-tube. My first prototype cost about $20 to make—bear in mind, though, everything’s cheaper in India.

I entered this design for the Google Science Fair in 2012 and became a finalist. Google flew my brother and I out to Palo Alto, California for the event where I presented this design to a number of eminent scientists and even Nobel Laureates. This event was a strong re-enforcement to continue heading in the direction of furthering resource efficiency and making accessible the basic amenities to as much of mankind as possible. Which brings me to the second face of this coin.  Over 2.5 billion people around the world do not have access to a toilet. That’s 1 in 3 people on this planet. Growing up in India, where these realities are an everyday part of life for many people, I am determined to make the cheapest, most accessible, easy to distribute form of this product as possible.

During my gap year, I spent two months in Swaziland, in southern Africa, mentored by T.H. Culhane, a National Geographic Fellow who has traveled the world setting up bio-gas digesters and solar lighting and heating. Together, we set up a working model for the toilet’s use in a rural setting, along with three large bio-digesters to convert animal, human, and food waste into clean cooking fuel.

It’s rather rewarding to follow an idea through its conception to watch it benefit people on the ground. I’d like to continue work in this direction with similar projects. Being in a beautiful rural setting like Craftsbury only catalyzes the best of these ideas.


A simple diagrammatic representation of the toilet.

Filed Under: Blog Ecology