Saturday, 27 July 2013

UN declares Nov 19 as World Toilet Day

Resolution is the first that S'pore has tabled in 48 years as UN member
The Straits Times, 25 Jul 2013

SINGAPORE made a big splash at the United Nations last night: Its move to promote good sanitation for all was such a hit that the world body wasted little time in passing its resolution to declare Nov 19 World Toilet Day.

The success was all the more sweet as the resolution is the first Singapore has ever tabled in its 48 years of being a UN member.

The subject, however, is sure to flush out some potty names for the event and off-colour jokes.

But Singapore officials hope that the chuckles will get the issue out of the water closet, because good sanitation is more than just a matter of hygiene.

Singapore's UN deputy permanent representative Mark Neo told the UN General Assembly: "We need to first seize the world's attention through humour and a catchy phrase like World Toilet Day, before we can inform and educate.

"You have to find a pivotal issue, like toilets, which by focusing all your attention and efforts on, you can achieve many disproportionate and positive outcomes in terms of health, gender equality, economic prosperity and the personal dignity of many of the poorest people in the world."

Each year, about 760,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhoea caused by dirty water and poor sanitation habits.

The economic loss is also huge, shrinking a country's gross domestic product by up to 7 per cent.

The UN estimates that 2.5 billion people worldwide lack access to better sanitation.

While the triumph of Singapore's "Sanitation for All" resolution was swift, with the 193-member UN General Assembly adopting it within minutes, the road to success was long and rocky.

It took almost four years, starting in 2009 when Singapore's famed "Mr Toilet" Jack Sim sent his idea by e-mail to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

Mr Sim is the founder of World Toilet Organisation, a non-governmental body that has championed good sanitation and clean toilets for more than a decade.

But his idea was deemed "inappropriate" by Singapore's man at the UN Mission in New York, Mr Vanu Menon.

Two years later, however, Mr Menon, who was back at MFA as deputy secretary for South-east Asia and International Organisations, had a change of heart.

A face-to-face meeting with Mr Sim, initiated by former foreign minister George Yeo, was the clincher.

Mr Yeo had met Mr Sim towards the end of 2011 at the annual World Toilet Summit in Hainan island, and was bowled over.

"Jack has a passion which is infectious," he told The Straits Times.

Over the next 11/2 years, MFA's intense lobbying got 120 countries to co- sponsor the resolution.

But there were difficult moments, said Mr Sim.

Monaco, for instance, wanted the event moved to Nov 20, to avoid clashing with its National Day. But Nov 19 is the date of birth of Mr Sim's World Toilet Organisation, and the day on which World Toilet Day is already unofficially observed in many countries.

"There are 193 countries in the UN and everyone likes to negotiate," he said. "In order not to get off track, we said at the start that the date and name are non-negotiable."

The adoption of World Toilet Day is important for Singapore too.

Improving sanitation "made a major difference for our public health and hygiene", said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan.

In independent Singapore's early years, more than half the population did not have proper toilets, and used latrines that hung above rivers or buckets filled with soil.

By 1997, after extensive cleaning of rivers, modernising of infrastructure and building of Housing Board homes, sanitation was no longer a problem.

On Nov 19, the Environment and Water Resources Ministry, National Environment Agency and national water agency PUB will mark World Toilet Day in Singapore, with partners such as the Restroom Association of Singapore, Lien Aid and Mr Sim's World Toilet Organisation.

For Mr Sim, the achievement is testament to what cooperation between the Government and civil society can accomplish.

"We have a lot of people who want to do good both in our country and outside. If this could be an example, it would be nice."




A PASSION FOR SANITATION

Jack (Sim) has a passion which is infectious. Toilets are so important to our everyday life, but everywhere we encounter inadequate toilets. Many people, especially women, avoid drinking too much water to reduce the need to use toilets. This is harmful to health.

The cost of providing good toilets is far below its utility to all of us. Yet, for a variety of reasons, there is market failure. The way to solve this problem is to make toilets a legitimate subject of attention by everybody, by managers and by users. Then everybody benefits.

World Toilet Day will help us achieve an important Millennium Development Goal, and I'm so happy that Jack and Singapore have played a leadership role in this.

– Mr George Yeo, vice-chairman of Kerry Group and former Singapore foreign affairs minister







Hundreds of millions have no toilets to use
The Straits Times, 25 Jul 2013

IN THREE of Asia's biggest countries, hundreds of millions of people are still defecating in the open due to the lack of toilets.

Throw in the poor state of public toilets, and observers say this could lead to outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid and diarrhoea.

In Indonesia, sanitation campaigners say two out of every five Indonesians lack proper facilities to answer the call of nature.

"And as many as 63 million Indonesians still defecate in the open," Ms Naning Adiwoso, chairman of the Indonesian Toilet Association, told reporters.

These include one million of Jakarta's 10 million residents, many of whom live in slum areas by the capital's rivers, Antara News Agency reported.

In China, there were just 118,000 public lavatories in cities, as recorded at end of 2009.

China usually hogs pole position for having Asia's dirtiest loos, according to rankings by the World Toilet Association.

Last year, the capital of Beijing tried to reduce the stink by holding toilets to a higher standard - one rule says that each restroom should have no more than two flies.

In India, a new slogan has been adopted to bring about change: No toilet, no bride.

In central India's Madhya Pradesh state, where the government organises mass wedding ceremonies in poor villages, prospective grooms must show a photo of themselves before a toilet in their house to qualify for marriage.

According to government data, only 25,000 of India's 600,000 villages are considered officially "clean", meaning these places have achieved total sanitation: no open defecation, safe drinking water for every household, and a working drainage system.








'Don't pooh-pooh S'pore's push for World Toilet Day'
Basic sanitation still scarce in poor countries: Experts
By David Ee, The Straits Times, 26 Jul 2013

POLITICAL commentators, aid groups and MPs yesterday cheered the country's decision to make improving sanitation the aim of its United Nations resolution, even as it quickly became the butt of jokes among sections of the public.

Proper sanitation, they sought to remind critics, remains a basic right still out of reach of many in poorer countries, impacting their hygiene and in turn their health.

Singapore's choice to champion at the UN an issue faced not by its own people but by others also marks it out as a "responsible and global" nation-state, said Dr Lim Wee Kiak, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs.

"People will have their own opinions, but I would say please don't downplay the importance of sanitation," he said.

"It is quite clear-cut."

Political scientist at the National University of Singapore and former diplomat Reuben Wong added: "It might be a non-issue in Singapore, but it's a big issue in much of the Third World."

According to UN estimates, about 2.5 billion people - more than a third of the world's population - still lack access to improved sanitation.

Singapore's "Sanitation For All" resolution was adopted by the 193-member UN General Assembly on Wednesday.

It calls for greater attention to be paid to the global sanitation crisis, through the marking of World Toilet Day each Nov 19.

The resolution had been co-sponsored by 120 countries.

Mr Koh Lian Hock, the chief executive of Lien Aid, a non-governmental organisation that helps improve sanitation in poor communities in Asia, was proud to see Singapore taking the lead to raise awareness about the problem.

"People's perception is that Singapore is always (focused on) the economy, on ourselves... It's good that the Government is doing something for humanity," he said.

But his sentiments were not shared by some members of the public, who struggled to see the point of World Toilet Day.

"We are probably the most developed and modern country in the world... and what we can offer as our resolution to the world is 'clean toilets'?" a user commented on The Straits Times report online.

Another user, Terence Wee, wrote: "What the crap! Singapore - Loo-sers of the world!"

Student Vo An Nhien, 18, felt that the choice of name probably led some people to that misunderstanding.

"The name World Toilet Day is a little weird. Perhaps they could have chosen something else."

Singapore's deputy permanent representative to the UN Mark Neo had anticipated the reactions.

In remarks before the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, he said: "I am sure there will be laughter among the press and the public when it is reported that the UN is declaring a World Toilet Day.

"Their laughter is welcome, especially if they recognise the prevailing and unhealthy taboo that prevents an open and serious discussion of the problems of sanitation and toilets globally."

Showing Singaporeans that, for example, there are some just a two-hour flight away in Cambodia without basic sanitation will help people see the scale of the problem, said Lien Aid's Mr Koh.

Lien Aid has helped improve sanitation and water access for about half a million people since it was founded in 2006, building more than 21,000 toilets in countries such as Cambodia, China and Vietnam.

"It's a larger issue than just us," said Mr Koh. "It is our responsibility to advocate for this."




Charities cheered by UN 'toilet' resolution
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 26 Jul 2013

SINGAPORE'S efforts to improve sanitation in poorer countries will help to mobilise resources and raise awareness of related projects, charities said yesterday.

Lien Aid's chief executive Koh Lian Hock, who was involved in lobbying for the United Nations resolution, said it would help to legitimise the issue and provide a springboard for it and other non-government organisations (NGOs) to approach potential benefactors and mobilise manpower.

Meanwhile Ms Jean Tan, executive director of Singapore International Foundation, said: "We are heartened by this development which will spur our long-running efforts to bring to others what we in Singapore are so fortunate to have as a given - clean water access and sanitation."

Mrs Foo Pek Hong, chief executive of World Vision Singapore, said the resolution "reinforces our resolve to continue to promote hygiene and access to water".

The organisation sends its trained staff members overseas, while Lien Aid, the Singapore International Foundation and some schools also hold volunteer trips.

The projects involve building infrastructure, such as toilets and water tanks, and teaching good hygiene habits like washing hands properly and not defecating in the open. Lien Aid has completed 22 such projects to date and has another 88 under way.

Last year, Singapore Polytechnic students visited a fishing village in rural Cambodia to design and install floating toilets.

These toilets can float during floods when much of the village is underwater, including its only public toilet. They can also convert the waste into fertiliser.

But charities said there is still much to be done. The UN estimates that 2.5 billion people lack access to "improved sanitation" - meaning separation of human excrement from human contact.

In Cambodia, 70 per cent of people practise open defecation, which can be particularly unsafe for women if carried out after dark, said Ms Aisha Abdul Rahman from Lien Aid.

Behavioural changes do not happen overnight, she added.

Meanwhile, Ms Tan urged people to "contribute funding, resources, expertise and volunteer service to the cause of uplifting regional communities faced with these challenges, which Singapore too faced in its early days".


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