World Toilet Day: A truly noble idea

A Indian man (L) washes as another comes out of a toilet in a toilet complex run by an NGO Sulabh International at railway station in New Delhi on April 23, 2011. Fast-growing Asian economies may be flush with money but filthy toilets remain a blight
A Indian man (L) washes as another comes out of a toilet in a toilet complex run by an NGO Sulabh International at railway station in New Delhi on April 23, 2011. Fast-growing Asian economies may be flush with money but filthy toilets remain a blight across the region despite rising standards of living, with dire effects on economies and public health.-- PHOTO: AFP

THANKS to the United Nations and Singapore, we now have World Toilet Day on Nov 19 every year, a day dedicated to proper sanitation for all.

It may seem funny, even a bit of a joke, to those of us fortunate to be living where there are clean and available public loos.

But to the women of Mumbai, for example, where there are fewer than 3,000 municipal public toilets catering to 18 million residents, it’s a seriously pressing issue. This is especially as every single one of those public loos is meant for men’s use only.

For all that we complain about loos in Singapore, the city does have a decent system. There are loos wherever you can find food and drink, for example, a commonsensical arrangement which I had taken for granted until I went to Taiwan. After having enjoyed a hearty meal in a coffeeshop, I discovered to my leg-crossing horror that there were no toilets in the establishment or nearby.

Singapore may have set itself up for derision, even from its own sometimes unappreciative citizens, by pushing through World Toilet Day, but I applaud the move. Bringing better sanitation to all is, no matter how you look at it, a noble endeavour.

While there is Japan with its high-tech self-washing, self-drying toilet systems, there are many parts of Asia where sanitation is so poor that the issue goes beyond public health.

In villages across South Asia, for example, the lack of toilets has been associated with rapes and other attacks on women. Many women are forced to venture into the edges of fields and lonely woods in search of privacy, and often at the crack of dawn or late in the evening, to optimise the cover of darkness. And this opens them up to the risk of attack.

In a recent case, an 11-year-old girl stepped outside her home in India’s West Bengal to relieve herself on the ground, only to be reportedly attacked by two men. Doused with kerosene and then set on fire, she told her landlady that the men had tried to rape her and then to kill her when she threatened to tell her parents, in a case that has caused widespread outrage in India. She died four days after the attack.

In cities where there are not enough public toilets to go around, the effect is disproportionately worse for women in terms of their willingness to venture from home and seek employment. Fact of life: men can find a corner and pee if they have to; women can’t.

Too often, too, sanitation can make the difference between life and death.

Heartbreakingly, too many children in Asia die every year because of diseases caused by poor sanitation and hygiene. Diarrhoea kills roughly one in 10 children under the age of five around the world every year, with just over half of those deaths occurring in Asia, according to Unicef and World Health Organisation data.

The death toll is shocking, with the incidence high even in countries not usually associated with extreme sanitary conditions. In Indonesia alone, more than 40,000 children under the age of five die every year from sanitation-related diseases, according to the Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP), a World Bank-administered project. That’s about as many babies as were born in Singapore last year.

Improved sanitation, happily, can change things for the better. Recent WSP reports showed that when improved sanitation was introduced in communities in Indonesia and India, young children quickly showed improvements in height and weight, compared to their counterparts in control communities. In India, children under the age of five grow nearly 2 per cent taller in one study, a significant difference at that age of development.

But while much has been done in the region, the improvements are not coming quickly enough, says the Asian Development Bank.

The percentage of people in Asia and the Pacific with access to improved sanitation has grown from 36 per cent in 1990 to 58 per cent in 2010. But too many are still being forced to openly defecate, it said in its Asian Water Development Outlook 2013 report released earlier this year.

More than 792 million people in Asia and the Pacific still practise open defecation and more than 631 million of them live in rural South Asia, it said.

There is an urgent need for the pace of change to pick up, not least because poor sanitation has a disproportionately devastating effect on women and children.

If Singapore has given even a little boost to making the world a more sanitary place, then for a tiny red dot of an island, it would have done a truly great thing.

sokling@sph.com.sg