Dateline New Delhi: Live At The World Toilet Summit

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As at any other conference, delegates arriving at the 2007 World Toilet Summit in New Delhi are handed a tote bag full of schwag. Unlike any other conference, however, our bags contained two small plastic containers of human waste.

Composted human waste, of course. In one, a few powdery ounces of "human excreta-based manure" (2.0% nitrogen, 6.9% phosphorus, 0.4% potassium); in the other, a "hard ball" of composted humanure mixed with adhesive. I don't know what one does with a "hard ball" of poop, but I do know that it has absolutely no smell.

Yes, I gave it a whiff.

At the 2007 World Toilet Summit, which runs until Saturday, 153 international delegates from 39 countries have joined 172 Indian attendees to discuss and debate issues of sanitation. This year's theme is "Toilet for All" -- a reference to the 2.6 billion people around the world who don't have one, which contributes to 1.8 million children dying of diarrheal diseases every year. Academics, scientists, economists, bureaucrats, NGO representatives, and at least one writer of books about poop have gathered to present papers, discuss strategies, examine technologies, and kick off preparations for the U.N.-declared International Year of Sanitation, just two months away.

In a vast assembly hall straight out of every movie I've ever seen about the UN (headphones for listening to translations, delegates bowing their heads in conference), the event kicks off. I count two dozen photographers and at least ten video crews documenting speech after speech by dignitary after dignitary -- Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International; Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization; His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands; former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam; and, symbolically, a "former scavenger woman" who was "liberated" from the "demeaning" practice of collecting human waste from household cesspools by Dr. Pathak's organization. (Their words, not mine.)

The speeches adhered to what I've learned to be the grand Indian tradition in which each speaker lavishly honors the people on the dais before any other words are uttered; only after flowers are given, plaques are presented, and accomplishments are praised can each speaker then move on to exhort of the attendees that everyone in the world should have a toilet. (The word "toilet" is used in a sense broader than the flushing Ferguson we're all familiar with; here, it means simply an apparatus that accepts and stores poop in a sanitary way.)

I hear lots of statistics, but little to keep my attention. As fascinated as I am by the human waste infrastructure, and as concerned as I am about 2.6 billion of my fellow humans, toilets can indeed be rendered humorless and uninteresting.

It's Jack Sim's speech that brings back the excitement. And he does it by addressing one of the two common baselines at which people view toilets: they're funny. "I think," he said, rising to the lectern as we round out the second hour of interminable speeches, "after this long discussion, I don't have to convince you right now of the importance of a toilet."

Sim wants to make sanitation "sexy." His solution to the sanitation crisis is not to deliver a bunch of toilets to a bunch of villages, but to address it as a problem of demand. To him, 2.6 billion people living without sanitation isn't a function of poverty -- it's a function of demand. It's less important to bring sanitation to people that it is for them to want to be sanitized. It's not even necessary for people to know WHY toilets are important -- he just wants them to want them.

His strategy is to educate suppliers -- from the smallest rural plumber to the largest corporation -- on the profit potential even rudimentary toilets possess when multiplied by almost half the world's population. It would be primarily up to local suppliers to generate demand -- a strategy that will position the toilet in ways far more culturally-relevant than any NGO-sponsored campaign could accomplish, and could deliver toilets far faster than any not-for-profit approach could facilitate.

He also exhorted politicians to help eliminate taboos by taking pictures next to toilets.

The next day, at the toilet Expo: the latest innovations in porta-potties. A new technology to retrofit any urinal into a waterless apparatus. A latrine that utilizes negative air pressure to suck out all smells. Composting toilets. Solar toilets. Toilets on trains. A grade-school sanitation club's posters depicting the dangers of open defecation in the fields (which, as the crayoned drawings graphically depict, include being bitten on the ass by a cobra).

And then, at the delegates' presentations: a call for the American government to legislate more public toilets. Tours of rural toilets from the Philippines, Africa, and Germany. Descriptions of schools toilets across India and Nepal. A debate of the benefits of sitting toilets versus the squatting kind (with the cryptic subtitle "Demedicalisation of hemorrhoids therapy/prevention"). An impassioned call for the creation of a Canadian Toilet Organization to address that country's water resource issues that ran far over the allotted time. As the moderator progressed from polite exhortation to all-out shouting for him to stop, the speaker finally announced that Canada's desperate need for a toilet organization has finally been met -- by the speaker himself, who is now forming a Canadian Toilet Organization.

While the Toilet Summit skews towards issues affecting developing nations, the World Toilet Organization represents toilet needs of all countries. This leads to strange juxtapositions of concerns -- one delegate calls for US airlines to provide more toilets for their passengers, while the next pleads on behalf of distant villages for even one toilet at all.

The air at the World Toilet Summit is one of optimism. Unlike many of humanity's problems, this is a fight that can be won. A billion more people have access to sanitation than did twenty years ago. Jon Lane, executive director of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, looks at the technology -- affordable -- and the strategies -- proven -- and issues a declaration: "We can achieve universal sanitation in our lifetime."

There is one more day left in the conference. Hopefully I'll find out what to do with my ball of composted shit.

7 Comments on "Dateline New Delhi: Live At The World Toilet Summit"

daphne's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardSite AdminComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatore 6000+ points

We've all mostly likely been to a few expo-type affairs. Some people go the Star Trek or comic book conventions, or if you have a specialized career, conventions for products for your vocation. Whe Dave mentioned the porta-potty expo, a surreal version came to mind that had nothing to do with the one he described. At the risk of making light of the affair (which by means is NOT my intention), the image is just too bizarre to keep to myself.

Images of hot babe product models in tight, twinkly dresses and outlandishly dressed porta-potty fans walking around looking for their favorite brands' booths in search of autographs appeared. Then I thought about mascots. What about mascots? Surely there would be a few of those. Would there be toilet paper rolls or barrels of blue chemical walking around, seemingly supported by a pair of legs in tights? Why yes.

Overly-done, spinning platforms large enough to support a porta-potty, covered in huge, flashing blue and orange stage bulbs, twinkling every two seconds, turning slowly - the rotisserie chicken approach to 360 degree viewing lent to showing off the newest, top of the line handi-crapper.

Crazed video productions of steroided-up women in red, white, and blue bikinis shooting M-16's at the side of a porta-potty to demonstrate their ability to withstand tipping, rocks, and worst of all, drunk concert-goers with bad aim.

Loud music floats from speakers overhead, and Dave wanders through the mirage of potty mania, his head spinning as person after person from surrounding booths him attempt to lure him over to sign up for 20 thousand cases of single-ply. They're dressed like carnies from the Thirties. They have red and white striped canes. We see the Dave through a fish-eye lense, looking around and around, his hair a a halo colored by the flashing lights, swallowed by the magnitude that is Porta-Potty Expo 2007. Why buy the whole seat when you only need the edge?

But seriously, the whole description of what you're doing right now, Dave, is wonderful. This must be something you never imagined a few years ago. I hope you post more about it soon. Stay safe and we love you.

.....hugging bunnies since 1969

.....hugging bunnies since 1969

TruckerJoe's picture

Another reason to avoid turd terrorism right?

I however do enjoy a full blown squat outside in the wilderness. Nothing like confusing people as to what animal left such a pile. Oh the fun.

The Thunderous Crapper 63's picture
k 500+ points

Dave kudos once again for enlightening the masses. One thing though is it possible to have a couple of web cam reports from there I dont know if you brought one with you but that would be really cool too. Just a thought.
The Thunderous Crapper 63 Enjoying home toilet advantage since 2004!


Bunga Din's picture
j 1000+ points

I think it would have been more appropriate if they had handed you a toot bag! Just my TWO cents worth.

P.S. The World Toilet Summit made the top 10 news stories of the day on our national news service in Canada.

Report available here.

Shits Happily In The Shadows's picture
l 100+ points

Thanks for fighting the good fight, Dave! We're all proud of you!

Assaulting toilets since 1977!

Assaulting toilets since 1977!

Anonymous Coward's picture

Take lots of pics Dave.

Mary Queen of Scats's picture
l 100+ points

Did they have an expo? Like to showcase new toilet models and whatnot?

Hey! That's my robe!

Bad kitty! Bathtubs are NOT litterboxes!

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