THE BLOG
10/07/2013 02:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Surprising Answer to Haiti's Sanitation Needs

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The issue is sanitation. The numbers are numbingly staggering, so much so that my quoting them will not do service to the problem. Let's take a moment and forget that we're American. Let's take another moment and go back three thousand years, before there was any shred of advanced civilization on the planet. What are we left with? Small villages relying on each other to survive. That was the name of the game.

Now, let's fast forward back to the present. Clean water flows from the faucet. The toilet flushes waste without an issue. I can heat my food on the stove, no problem. The shelter I happen to live in provides me with a safe haven from heat, cold, snow and shower. In very real terms, we all live like kings, if you think about how kings lived hundreds of years ago. If a king wanted a pineapple 500 years ago, he would have to send an expedition to the new world. Half of the expedition wouldn't return. Now, if I want a pineapple I drive a half mile to the grocery store. Done. And, delicious.

Why go on this momentary journey? Because it's so easy to forget that while we in America have the privileges that a technologically advanced civilization can provide, there are plenty of places on the planet that have not had this sort of development. Think about rural villages in China. Urban slums in India or Brazil. And, of course, just about anywhere in Haiti.

Haiti has been a microcosm for all that could go wrong in the advancement of human potential. Before the country was ravaged by an earthquake, it was ravaged by ineffective governance, a lack of infrastructure, cancelled loans, a nonexistent educational system and no sanitation system whatsoever. Believe me, I could go on. As human beings who live in privilege (like us) come to realize that troubles exist beyond our shores, it only seems logical that Haiti has attracted the attention of people both known and unknown to solve these problems.

I've already written about the incredible story of the inventor and entrepreneur Harvey Lacey, who came up with a way to build a home in Haiti that could withstand earthquakes and hurricanes at a fraction of the cost of a regular home. I write now because I've had the chance to speak with an activist you might have heard of, Patricia Arquette, and she is just as passionate about Haiti as any other entrepreneur I've had the pleasure of speaking with.

Patricia understands that human beings operate in systems. The sanitation system (or lack thereof) affects the soil, which affects the water supply, and so on. And what we're seeing in Haiti is a breakdown not just of one system, but all of them. In Haiti, half of deaths are from waterborne illnesses, with kids getting parasites in droves. When kids get parasites, moms can't work, and when moms can't work, things stop. That's what's happened in Haiti. Full stop.

It's not a pretty picture, but that's the reality. So why not work with the reality we've got to create a better one? That's been the call of innovators since the beginning of what we know as civilization, and Patricia Arquette has focused the attention of her nonprofit, Give Love, on dealing with the sanitation problem in Haiti. Yes, the same sanitation problem I alluded to in the beginning of this post, the one that sends kids to the hospital for diarrhea in alarming numbers, all over Haiti.

But what if the problem, lack of clean sanitation, could turn into the solution, nutrient rich soil to provide for the health of the community?

That's a hell of a question to ask, and Patricia's charity Give Love is doing their damnedest to answer it. Give Love takes pure waste -- yes, we're talking human waste -- and then heats it. The heating process kills all the bacteria, and then the waste is turned into compost. It's the same process your body goes through when you get sick -- your temperature goes up until your body has killed the infection.

The compost, which is bacteria free, can then be safely put into the soil to grow crops that will not make kids sick. It's not a particularly pretty picture, but it is extremely effective. Give Love has launched a successful pilot with 300 households who have access to their own toilet and then a compost manager. Give Love trains the compost managers, so they can master their position and use their expertise to both provide healthy soil and make a living.

What's more, Give Love has implemented green schools to teach kids about hygiene. They teach habits early on such as proper hand washing so that kids learn it once and for good. Again, this is systems-based thinking here. The composting is only part of the solution. Teaching the young is a critical component to ensuring that proper hygiene and effective sanitation methods take root.

This method is not particularly fun to think about -- no one is arguing that. Of course, dealing with sanitation never is (I speak for myself). But when we step outside of our box of comfort as Americans, we can see that a solution like this can truly change the game. People in the pilot program are telling Give Love they're not getting diarrhea anymore -- that's meaningful progress. What's more, the process can be scaled to other areas of the world that lack proper sanitation -- and if you didn't know, over 2.5 billion people don't have access to proper sanitation (I told you the number was numbingly large). If you're interested in helping out, you can always learn more at GiveLove.org and donate. At a minimum, hopefully you'll remember that the solutions to our toughest problems might be right around us -- even where we're afraid to look.