/ 28 September 2005

‘The toilet is the last taboo’

Participants at the World Toilet Summit, taking place this week in Northern Ireland, are shrugging off the sniggers to insist everyone must pay attention to the ”last taboo” of proper sanitation.

”We have been conditioned not to talk about it,” said Jack Sim, the Singaporean businessman who founded the World Toilet Organisation, which runs the annual event.

”We have had women’s liberation, sex revolution, workers’ revolution, we can talk about everything now — the toilet is the last taboo which must be broken,” he said.

The potential for mockery is high.

Presentations during the event at Belfast’s appropriately named Waterfront Hall include Changing Washroom Behaviour, Public Toilet Excellence: The Singapore Model and Managing Out Crime in Public Toilets.

Meanwhile, inside the exhibition centre a young woman driving a moveable toilet stall circulates between stands.

But aid workers stress that the subject is a hugely serious one, especially in the developing world.

”Forty-two percent of the world’s population, 2,6-million people, have no access to basic sanitation, a basic human need and dignity. A child dies every 15 seconds from diarrhoea caused by poor sanitation and water supply,” said Therese Mahon, from the British-based charity Water Aid.

”Action is required by both developing and developed world governments. Developing-country governments must take the lead and recognise the importance of sanitation for their economic and social development,” she said.

Belfast itself has just invested in five costly new public toilets, which automatically clean themselves within two minutes, keep the door open if they detect the weight of two people trying to get in together and, for the snoozing customer, automatically reopen after a quarter of an hour.

Asia has a particularly strong interest in the summit, with the World Toilet Organisation based in Singapore, a place noted for the famous cleanliness of its public conveniences.

At perhaps the other end of the sanitary scale is Beijing, which is hoping to build 3 500 new public toilets before the 2008 Olympics, hence the 15 Chinese delegates at the summit.

”Our organisation was born in the East and got a lot of support, and people are starting to be awakened in the West. They are realising that other people can talk about toilets,” Sim noted.

”I know of some toilets in Korea where you can drink tea — you don’t feel you are in an awkward situation.”

Singaporean lawmaker Amy Khor, in Belfast for three days of debates, emphasised the importance of the issue in her continent.

”Public toilets reflect on our society,” she said. ”I was told Japanese investors go and visit the toilets of a company before investing — they believe it reflects the level of efficiency of the management.

”When Jack Sim introduced himself to us as the founder of the World Toilet Organisation, we all laughed, but he is definitely having an impact.” — Sapa-AFP