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TheStreet Open House

China's Urban Wasteland

TAIPEI ( TheStreet) -- I had a "what the?" moment while reading a Gates Foundation statement that it would offer $5 million for reinventing the toilet in China.

Could the foundation's first single-country toilet design project help Microsoft (MSFT) try for a royal flush with Chinese authorities as it pushes into the market of 600 million PC users against strong preferences for local software providers? Is it because some of us would like to flush Windows 8 down the pipes?

Neither metaphor makes the point. The point is about China itself.

Expect a blast of air freshener if the country can meet its toilet challenge as well as a much smellier one for which toilets are merely a fitting symbol. The offer to pay R&D for what the foundation calls a "next-generation toilet" comes as China grapples with mounting waste of all manner from its fast-growing urban population.

Modernizing the toilet would symbolize an assault on the huge cleanup (or disaster) ahead for China due to record flows of rural migrants headed for its already smoggy, congested un-zoned first-and-third-world mash-ups known as cities.

Urbanization in China, speedier than in Europe or Latin America at just six decades, presents obvious pollution and sanitation problems. In 2011 more people lived in Chinese cities than in rural areas for the first time, the United Nations Development Programme says. A UNDP report says that 60 years ago just 10% lived in urban areas.

The Gates Foundation, which has already funded 16 toilet research institutions around the world, seems to understand: "The Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is designed to spur innovation and bring creative thinking to solve the problem of dealing (with) human waste," its Aug. 22 statement says.

Another 310 million people will leave the countryside by 2030, putting 1 billion or 70% of China's population in cities, the UN agency adds. Chinese people prefer cities for their better-paid jobs as farming is financially unreliable due to drought, floods and substandard rural health care.

Beijing officials aren't holding the migrants back, although newcomers to Chinese cities may still face legal inconveniences until they have steady enough work to register as urbanites." So they are plotting ways to head off urban glut. With "efficient use of natural and energy resources" a top UNDP concern, the UN agency and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang are angling toward a scheme that both call an "eco-civilization" plan for the burgeoning cities.

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