For someone who jet sets around the world, hobnobbing with governments and scientists to promote affordable and ecological toilets, Roshan Shrestha found out for himself just how difficult maintaining loos can be during a recent visit to his home in Nepal.
The Seattle-based 55-year-old sanitation expert (pictured below) found that the septic tank at his family home below Swayambhu was overflowing. But he had no clue who to turn to, and how to get it emptied.
“I did not know where to go,” recalled Shrestha during a break at a Faecal Sludge Management Conference last week in Cape Town. “If it was so difficult for me, I can only imagine how hard it must be for the general public.”
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Shrestha finally got in touch with a private service provider and got the problem fixed after a few days. With over 30 years of experience in improving sanitation, Shrestha was promoted last month as Deputy Director of the Urban Sanitation Markets at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).
Shrestha is a leading authority in the field, and involved in the BMGF’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge that has scientists around the world competing for the best design of a new generation of toilets that do not use water, are cheap to install and easy to operate.
Shrestha has been recognised for promoting water and sanitation projects in Nepal with his new responsibility at the BMGF, a philanthropic arm of the founder of Microsoft.
Says environmental expert Bhushan Tuladhar: “Roshan is passionate about sanitation, and does not treat it as just another job. He has great commitment and perseverance. His success is well deserved and it is only fitting that the foundation has recognised it.”
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The Gates Foundation’s Brian Abrogast said of Shrestha’s promotion: “Roshan Shrestha has been the best ambassador the foundation could ask for, exuding respect and compassion while generating admiration – and impressive results.”
The BMGF’s toilet challenge has prompted top scientists from China, India and other parts of the world to come up with innovative new designs, from solar-powered smart toilets that generate hydrogen and electricity to sanitation systems that convert human waste into biological charcoal, fuel gas, minerals and clean water.
Shrestha had humble beginnings in a public school in Kathmandu before getting an MSc from Tribhuvan University in 1988. He worked in a water analysis laboratory to test the water in the Bagmati River. And later founded Environment and Public Health Organisation (ENPHO) that specialises in research and monitoring. Later, he got a PhD from a university in Austria in limnology, the study of inland water bodies. On his return, Shrestha successfully marketed the popular water purifier called Piyush.
Shrestha went on to introduce Nepal’s first wetland system in Dhulikhel for small-scale wastewater treatment and reuse, and designed Nepal’s first faecal sludge treatment plant in Teku in 1998.
“It was at this point that I realised that water quality would never improve without upgrading sanitation. At the root of water pollution is poorly managed sanitation,” said Shrestha, who then became involved in rainwater harvesting and turned his residence into a model eco-home complete with urine diversion dry toilet.
After a stint at UN HABITAT as a South Asia region technical adviser, he was convinced toilet technology had to be less water-intensive to improve sanitation in the developing countries.
“We claim to have over 90% latrine coverage in Nepal but most structures do not meet required standards, and that is why we need a new breakthrough in toilets,” said Shrestha.
The Gates Foundation has invested heavily in developing new technologies that can destroy pathogens on site through faecal sludge management.
“If a vast country like India can clean up its act, why can’t Nepal? All we need is political will and proactive leadership committed to improving sanitation,” adds Shrestha, whose foundation is currently developing a new course on sanitation at Kathmandu University, and working with Nepal Bureau of Standards on a new toilet standard.
Here in Cape Town at the global conference he helped put together, Shrestha says his goal is still to go back to Nepal: “I plan to head home, but after we have developed an adaptable technology for safer sanitation in developing countries so we can promote it in Nepal as well.”