Toilets: Then and Now, Part 03; World Toilet Organization (WTO) Conference

(Latin: toile to toilette in Middle French to "toilet" in English)

Asian cities' public toilets symbolize civic achievement

BEIJING—Authorities here are always eager to show off their accomplishments, so when Beijing hosted the World Toilet Organization conference last week (November, 2004), delegates were given a grand tour of the city's toilets.

First stop was the public toilet at the National Museum on Tiananmen Square. As the delegates descended from their buses and walked en masse into the restroom, waiting TV cameras followed them inside, surprising people relieving themselves at the urinals. Undaunted, the delegates wandered the marbled restroom, tapping on commodes, inspecting piping, and peering intently into the long mirrors.

This was not just any restroom. A Viennese waltz floated around the room, "to relax and help patrons," the manager later said, and giant plasma television screens hung from the walls. The room was thick with air freshener, and every inch of steel glittered. Conference-goers took notes and shot pictures.

Swish public lavatories have been spreading rapidly in Beijing, and in numerous other Asian cities, as local leaders embrace the view of Singapore's senior statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, that clean toilets symbolize clean, modern government.

Cities competing with each other to impress investors and entice tourists are carrying out extensive "Clean Toilet" campaigns. Political commitment to this is so high that Malaysia's former prime minister, Mohammad Mahathir, "used to personally conduct spot checks of toilets," said Colin See, an executive director of the organization, which was started in Singapore four years ago.

That's exactly the attitude the toilet organization wants to encourage. Sanitation "is a problem common to all mankind," See said.

"We want to create a global standard in restrooms." The conference, he said, will allow academics, government officials, and environmentalists to "share their knowledge and promote cleaner, better toilets everywhere."

That's easier said than done. London built the world's first modern sewer in 1850, but more than half of the developing world's population still doesn't have access to decent toilets, said Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, an Indian organization that builds low-cost lavatories in rural areas.

More than five million children die every year from sanitation-related diseases such as diarrhea, United Nations reports say. In India and China alone, a billion people without sanitary facilities relieve themselves on streets and in rivers, causing pollution, illness, and "a collective 'loss of face' (embarrassment) for all of us," Pathak said.

At the Beijing conference, which ended Nov. 19 (2004), a day declared World Toilet Day by the organization, all the 400 delegates, including ministers, environmentalists, and industry representatives from fifteen countries, said they were committed to this vision. But there seemed to be little agreement on what shape the toilet of the future should take.

"There are cultural sensitivities, and we each have our own styles," says Hasan Bin Haji Hamzah, director of the delicately named Special Projects Department in the Kuala Lumpur city government. "To us, water is a must."

Megha Raj Regmi, a "dry sanitation" specialist in Nepal's Ministry of Physical Planning and Works, argued that it's "a crime to use massive amounts of water" on sanitation facilities when millions don't have drinking water. Instead, he suggests the world adopt his "dry-vault toilet," which costs $120.

Such vying to influence standards is just one of the ways "our WTO is similar to the other," said See, referring to the more well-known World Trade Organization.

Around him, pictures of commodes, wash basins, and flushing systems from all over the world stood neatly pinned onto bulletin boards around a buffet lunch. Delegates, as they ate, sifted through white papers with titles such as ''Urine Trouble at the Workplace."

Many good-naturedly said they're aware that their cause is not always taken seriously by outsiders. "That's why we chose the name WTO," See said. "It's a great icebreaker that allows us to break the taboo around the subject."

The intensity with which attendees debated issues and vied to promote their products showed just how big this business has become.

No one has calculated the size of the global toilet industry, but since restrooms and related infrastructure account for about seven percent of total construction costs, industry worth is probably "in the tens of billions of dollars," said Richard Chisnell, director of the British Toilet Association.

Beijing alone is spending $100 million to create about 3,700 "world-class" toilets in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics, said Zhang Yue, a senior official with China's Ministry of Construction. A star-rating system has also been created for city lavatories, and China says it also will build millions of low-cost toilets in rural areas over the next decade.

Substantial investments are also being made in sewage plants and environmentally friendly technologies, such as infrared sensors that save water and energy, said Tao Hua, vice president of the China Association of Urban Environmental Sanitation. Some criticize Asian governments for building luxurious restrooms while cutting education and health services, but Chisnell said one shouldn't knock the importance of good toilets.

"When a company in the UK wins our 'Loo of the Year' award, its revenues almost always double," he said.

"I think these countries are on to something."

—By Jehangir S. Pocha, The Boston Globe Correspondent; November 26, 2004

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