Dateline New Delhi: Live At The World Toilet Summit
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.