While scientists may regard penicillin or vaccinations as the greatest medical breakthroughs of all, Jack Sim claims toilets have done more for our health. Sim, founder of the Singapore-based World Toilet Organization, wants everyone to have access to a clean and safe toilet.
Marco Visscher | September 2008 issue
Do we really have the toilet to thank for being healthy?
“In the West, the toilet brought an end to epidemics. Toilets and hygiene have been shown to be the best preventive medicine. But London’s Great Plague of 1665 showed that the treatment of excreta is equally important. Today, hundreds of millions of people in rural areas and slums around the world still flush sewage directly into rivers.”
So health and development organizations must be jumping on the issue to solve this problem?
“Not really. When discussing solving poverty and diseases, experts don’t talk about sanitation, because they want to look elegant. After all, diarrhea is not a glamorous disease, so there’s no movie star helping people who die because of it. Meanwhile, it kills millions of people every year, including survivors of a famine or natural disaster when there’s poor sanitation in the refugee camps. We must understand that going to the toilet is just part of life—a very important part of life that cannot be underestimated.”
But are poor people asking for toilets, or for food, water and shelter?
“Of course they don’t ask for toilets! That would be embarrassing. Besides, many generations have defecated openly and their neighbours do it too, so nobody dares to raise the issue. That’s why we need to break the taboo. Once people start talking about it, you create demand, so businesses can step in to design, produce and distribute toilets. We could build an entire new economy based on toilets. This way, change can happen very quickly.”
What will change?
“Toilets will improve hygiene, and then we can fight common diseases much more easily. If you don’t have sanitation, diseases will keep coming back. Really, toilets can save our lives.