SEOUL, South Korea – The World Toilet Association kicked off its inaugural conference Thursday, hoping to spark a sanitation revolution that will save lives through better hygiene and break taboos about what happens behind closed bathroom doors.
To the celebratory rhythms of a percussionist beating on toilets, dozens of government delegates and U.N. representatives began two days of discussions on improving bathroom facilities for the 2.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to proper restrooms.
Dr. Shigeru Omi, western Pacific director of the World Health Organization, said 1.8 million people die annually due to diseases related to inadequate sanitation, 90 percent of them children younger than 5.
Providing healthy bathroom facilities worldwide would cost some $10 billion a year — equal to 1 percent of world military spending or what Europeans annually spend on ice cream, he said.
The new association aims to provide toilet facilities to impoverished countries, provide for urgent sanitation needs after natural disasters and spread information and technology for improving toilets.
The South Korean government has given strong backing to the World Toilet Association, which has been spearheaded by the country's "Mr. Toilet" — parliament member Sim Jae-duck, who earned his nickname for improving public restrooms for the 2002 World Cup as mayor of Suwon city.
"The restroom revolution will provide hope and happiness to mankind," Sim told delegates.
The group is not associated with the World Toilet Organization, another body that was founded in 2001 by Singapore's Jack Sim, has 44 member countries and similarly seeks to improve toilet sanitation in the third world.
South Korea's Sim, who has built a toilet-shaped house in his hometown, was unanimously elected Thursday as the new association's first president.
South Korea has sought to establish a "toilet culture" to improve restroom facilities for hosting international events. It now holds annual contests to select the most pleasant facilities.
Photos of winning restrooms displayed at the conference included lavatories featuring abundant natural light and plants, a boat-shaped building in the city of Ansan and the bathrooms on a South Korean naval ship.
"The toilet is directly linked to sanitation and hygiene of human beings as well as the improvement of the quality of their lives," South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told the conference.