UN passes S'pore's toilet resolution

SINGAPORE made a big splash at the United Nations on Wednesday 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."

SANITATION A GLOBAL CONCERN

About 760,000 children under the age of five die each year from diarrhoea caused by dirty water and poor sanitation habits. 2.5 billion people worldwide lack access to better sanitation. The economic consequences of poor sanitation are huge: A country can lose up to 7 per cent of its gross domestic product.

chanckr@sph.com.sg


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