by Thu Huong Le
Everyone's heard of the World Trade Organ-isation, but few have heard of its WTO namesake, the 11-year-old World Toilet Organisation.
Founded in 2001 and based in Singapore, its mission is to improve sanitation for people around the world through advocacy, technology and education.
Next month, a World Toilet Summit will be held in South Africa, bringing all relevant agencies and worldwide bodies to talk about a problem said to affect 2.6 billion people globally.
World Toilet Day was celebrated on Monday this week. It called for attention to a problem most people avoid talking about – lack of clean toilets.
In Viet Nam, the day didn't go entirely unnoticed, but our culture does not encourage us to talk openly about it. Whenever we ask for the location of a toilet at a friend's house or restaurant, it is courteous to lower your voice and use words that do not refer directly to the place or its function.
Sure, there have been articles about the shortage of clean toilets for tourists, school children and the citizens in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, but a full grasp of the problem is lacking. Urban Vietnamese live with the assumption that a lack of clean toilets is a problem for distant "have-nots".
Even when foreign tourists to Viet Nam complain about the lack of clean toilets in big cities, they are heard, but little is done to change things because we prefer not to believe our ears.
Catarina de Albuquerque, the United Nations Special representative on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, said that "access to sanitation facilities around the world, more than any others service, provides a window into the vast difference between the haves and the ‘have-nots."
That vast difference can be both deadly and economically challenging. It's estimated that in Viet Nam, only 52 per cent of the rural population have access to modern sanitation facilities, 18 per cent have access to latrines that meet Ministry of Health standards – and just 12 per cent of facilities in schools are classified as acceptable.
In 2011, the Asian Development Bank indicated in its report Fast Facts: Urbanisation in Asia, that most Asian cities did not have effective waste water treatment systems. Only 4 per cent of waste water is treated in Viet Nam compared to 14 per cent in Indonesia and 10 per cent in the Philippines.
The World Health Organisation and UNICEF estimate that 1.5 million children die each year due to diarrhoea, mostly due to poor sanitation facilities. In 2008, the World Bank said that economic losses due to poor sanitation caused a total of US$9 billion in Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Viet Nam.
This shows that Viet Nam and in the developing world, the problem is under estimated. Many localities aren't even aware of the issue. There's definitely a lack of leadership on the matter at the local level.
We need to integrate sanitation requirements into poverty-reduction programmes and new rural planning efforts. The State could also allocate separate resources from to tackle the problem.
While the efforts of development partners are applauded, the Government, especially at the ministry level, should treat the problem more seriously.
School children must be taught basic lessons on sanitation. There should be a nation-wide campaign to raise awareness on the need for clean toilets. There should also be standards, and punishments, set for restaurants, schools, public places and tourism sites.
The Government should also provide initiatives for companies to design clean low-cost toilets for rural and far-flung areas. The mass media can be used to spread the message. After all, better sanitation can help prevent serious disease.
It's a human right to have safe and clean toilets. Earlier this year, the Bill Gates Foundation announced the allocation of another US$3.4 million in new funding for toilet projects being worked on by various organisations around the world. But Viet Nam should not sit back and wait for Mr Gates.
Good sanitation has been a priority of good rulers since ancient times. The sanitation system for the old Thang Long Citadel in Ha Noi is proof that Vietnamese are not tradtionally slack in this area. — VNS