Refugee camps are notorious for enabling violence against women. With poor lighting and little security, women are often vulnerable to abuse, particularly at night and around toilets.
One possible way to combat this: lights powered by an abundant resource–human pee. Running off “microbial fuel cells,” they could light up off-grid camps and help keep refugees safer.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of abuse against women in camps,” says Andy Bastable, head of water and sanitation at Oxfam, which is helping develop the technology. “The men have often been fighters in a conflict. When they get to a camp they’ve been brutalized, and they’re more likely to brutalize women. The social norms have broken down.”
Typically, camps today will use either batteries or diesel generators, neither of which are ideal. The batteries will run down after two or three years, while the generators require fuel supplies and maintenance. The fuel cell and LED approach could last 20 years and need little upkeep. “It’s a far more sustainable solution for little initial cost,” Bastable says.
Developed at the University of the West of England, the fuel cell is integrated to a toilet system. Inside are microbes that eat up urine and produce electricity as a by-product. It’s not a lot of power, but enough to run modern LED lights that are hyper-efficient. A single toilet could power a string of nearby lights, Bastable says.
The bathroom is now being tested by students at the university (it sits outside the campus pub, so it’s getting plenty of use). If it proves durable enough, Oxfam hopes to test it at a camp in South Sudan and then start mass-manufacturing it as a kit.
“The hope is we can get it out there and spread it to other other agencies,” Bastable says. “We’d like to give it to the UNHCR [the U.N. refugee agency] and make it a standard technology, so there’s lighting in all their camps.”