Thu, Oct 04, 2007 - Page 9 News List

World Toilet Organization:It's no joke

With the slogan `Sanitation is dignity,' a Singaporean entrepreneur seeks to bring the taboo topic of hygiene to the world's attention

By Martin Abbugao  /  AFP , SINGAPORE

Jack Sim is often greeted with laughter when he introduces his organization or hands out his business card at international conferences.

And why not? The 50-year-old Singaporean entrepreneur is founder of the oddly named World Toilet Organization -- the other WTO -- and his name card comes with a logo depicting a blue toilet seat.

But after the initial laughter, Sim said the skeptics soon realize his "toilet talk" is no joke as he ticks off data on the devastation left by poor sanitation and hygiene.

Diarrhea, mainly caused by poor sanitary conditions, claims the lives of 1.8 million people annually, 1.6 million of them children under five years old, he said, citing World Bank figures.

More than 40 percent of the world's population, or 2.6 billion people, lack access to proper toilet facilities and 160 million are infected with intestinal worms, again due to poor sanitation, he adds.

Founded in 2001 as a non-profit organization, the Singapore-based WTO aims to make sanitation a key global issue and now said it has 55 member groups from 42 countries.

"The WTO is the voice for toilets and sanitation globally," Sim said.

"Before us, there was no global voice. People cannot talk about the toilet. They are too shy because when they were children, their mothers would teach them that if they want to be respected they must never talk about toilets," he said.

"Everybody thinks this is embarrassing, so we live in a state of denial that we have any relationship with toilet things, which is of course not true," he said.

With world attention focused on such issues as climate change and AIDS, people often forget that poor sanitation is a killer as well, he said, while not trivializing efforts to save the Earth and prevent AIDS.

"Sanitation is linked to poverty. Sanitation is linked to education," he said, urging politicians and prominent people to also take up the cause.

"No movie star has died of diarrhea. No politician has died of poverty," he quips, explaining the apparent lack of famous toilet champions.

"Two million children die every year from diarrhea, but nobody wants to talk about it. It's only 2 million children, what's the big deal?" Sim added with sarcasm.

The WTO's mission includes promoting clean public toilets in cities and helping people in slums and rural areas build proper toilet facilities to prevent contamination of water sources, a major cause of disease.

Thanks to the WTO, a World Toilet Summit is now held annually for academics and other experts to discuss toilet-related issues. A World Toilet Day is observed every Nov. 19, and Sim is also director of the World Toilet College.

Slightly built and soft-spoken but with a keen wit, Sim is conscious of the danger that his WTO could be seen as a joke. And, indeed, there have been some suggestions he should change the organization's name to something more palatable -- like replacing the word "toilet" with "restroom."

But Sim has refused, and instead uses the catchy moniker as a marketing gimmick to bring world attention to a serious issue.

"After they laugh, they remember us. It is impossible to forget once you hear about the World Toilet Organization," he said.

While the "other" WTO, the World Trade Organization, deals with global trade, Sim jokes that the two organizations "are both handling the same concern -- big and small businesses."

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