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July 7, 2013

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Meet Mr Toilet

Jack Sim - known internationally as Mr Toilet - has devoted 15 years of his life to toilets.

The 56-year-old Singaporean Chinese has become something of a celebrity, helping to break the taboo about talking about toilets, feces, disease and public health.

The social entrepreneur has won numerous awards, including Hero of the Environment (Time magazine 2008). He speaks on the topic whenever he can, and he himself is the subject of films, "Mr Toilet" (2012) and "Gotta Go" by National Geographic.

Although some people make light of his World Toilet Organization (WTO), founded in 2001, Sim is serious that basic toilets are essential to human well being. He plays on the abbreviation WTO for the better-known World Trade organization. His logo is a heart-shaped toilet seat - his WTO gimmick and heart logo caught on.

The nonprofit, nongovernmental organization unites toilet organizations around the world, mostly in Asia, and focuses on toilets themselves, not water, which is a better-known issue.Sim founded the World Toilet College in Singapore in 2005.

"More than 2.6 billion people don't have access to a toilet and that's 40 percent of the world's population who are sick or at risk of a sanitation-related disease," he told Shanghai Daily in a recent e-mail interview.

He estimated that more than 1 billion toilets are urgently needed.

Sim's WTO has branches in 86 countries and regions and over past 12 years it has built 30,000 standard squat toilets in poor rural areas with poor sanitation, mostly in India, Cambodia and Vietnam.

He does not work in China, however, because he has not found a partner in the country.

"I found toilets a neglected subject because people are too embarrassed to talk about it," Sim said. "Just as sex was a taboo before, the taboo of toilets needs to be broken before we can solve this issue. What we don't discuss, we can't improve."

A Singapore native, Sim is a self-made successful businessman, starting out in the construction industry when he was 24 years old. At age 40, he decided that he had probably lived half of his life already and wanted to do something more useful with the rest of it.

He recalls hearing former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Thong (in office 1990-2004) say that Singaporeans should measure their civility against the cleanliness of public toilets. That inspired Sim who founded the Singapore Restroom Association in 1998.

Many diseases are linked with lack of proper toilets and sanitation, when people ingest food and water contaminated by feces. These include diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, typhoid, polio, infectious hepatitis and parasitic diseases.

In many poor mountainous areas, people build outhouses next to rivers and excrement goes straight into the water, polluting it and contaminating fish and shellfish that are eaten, Sim said.

Before he held the first WTO summit in 2001, people warned him not to use the word "toilet" in the name because people would laugh and wouldn't take the group seriously. They were wrong. Media loved the name, used it frequently and that helped make talking about it acceptable. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the senior director of a major international public relations firm told him that at first he thought "WTO" was a mistake but then realized that he couldn't get it out of his head for three hours.

"When they can laugh at it, they'll begin to talk about it," Sim said. "Laughter is our way to break down barriers and defenses against a long-standing taboo."

The Singapore-based organization has 20 staff members in Singapore, Vietnam and India and more than 100 volunteers around the world.

WTO promotes and builds simple squat toilets that are affordable. Toilets are properly located and can connect with standard plumbing.

The organization operates on donations, sponsorships and grants, but it also trains people in poor areas to start factories to produce toilets and sell them to their community.

Running an NGO, he needs caring, dedicated people who are willing to work hard. "It's hard to find these people but when we do, we treasure them. Over the years we have built a super strong team," Sim said.

Some families they helped lived in houses built by other nonprofit organizations, but they didn't have toilets. When WTO built toilets, the families were happy and women were pleased they had privacy.

Education and raising awareness are essential and some people who have never used a toilet don't understand and value them. They used new toilet space as storerooms and continued to use outhouses. Sim sent volunteers into rural areas to explain the causes of disease in simple terms, the need for toilets and the need for hand-washing. They arranged learning games and activities.

"I hope we can increase people's desire for toilets," he said. "When most people in a village use toilets, the others will want them too."

Every year WTO holds toilet summits around the world to discuss introduction of standard toilets in rural areas and improve public toilets in cities.

The summit has been held four times on the Chinese mainland, including in 2009 in Shanghai and 2011 in Hainan Province.

World Toilet Day is November 19.

So far WTO has not built toilets in China, where infectious hepatitis is endemic. Local governments are trying to tackle the problem with more education, more toilet construction and better sanitation.

According to the report issued by the WTO, the coverage of toilets is under 50 percent, especially in countryside.

"But I can say the condition of toilets in China is improving," Sim said. "In earlier years, Singaporeans going to China would complain about the public toilets there but now the condition has changed for the better."


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