BANGKOK - New technology, religion, and the market must be harnessed to secure basic toilet facilities for Asia's rural and urban poor, sanitation experts from the region said here Thursday.Currently, over 2.6 billion people across the world have no access to an organized system of toilets, of which some 1.5 billion people live in the Asia-Pacific region, states the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), a regional UN body based in Bangkok, which hosted a conference on sanitation.
And every year, over 200 million tons of human waste go uncollected and untreated globally, adds ESCAP. This not only fouls the environment and spreads diseases, but forces the people with no access to toilets to ''live in deeper poverty and indignity.''
''If you want to solve the problem, you have to talk about the appropriate technology that works,'' said Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of India's Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, in a keynote address. ''In many developing countries, due to lack of affordable sanitation technology, sanitation coverage was far below the level of satisfaction.''
And for that, community involvement is a priority, since most of the people who need toilets are from the marginalized lower socio-economic sector, added Pathak, whose organization has built 7,500 community toilets in India. ''It is still not seen as a high priority, resulting in [the] absence of people's participation.''
Other experts, like Jack Sim, founder and current head of the Singapore-based World Toilet Organisation (WTO), called for the poor to be viewed in different light if the current sanitation gap has to be bridged. ''We don't follow the donor model, which requires the poor to be certified as useless to receive assistance.''
His organization has pushed the message for better sanitation using a ''marketing model,'' where the poor have to ''demand'' toilets. That includes ''teaching the poor to be sanitation businessmen,'' said Sim.
The role of religion in influencing change of current toilet habits has to be roped in, he added. ''Religion is a very good tool, because most religions say that when you come to God, you must come clean. We must try and leverage on this.''
Other organizations, like the Seoul-based World Toilet Association, say that for the world to achieve its current sanitation targets, discussion about toilets needs to be part of regular conversation. ''An open dialogue about toilets, a subject often avoided because of unpleasant associations, must be fostered,'' it states. ''Changing people's perceptions and encouraging social action aimed at expanding appropriate toilet facilities around the world is crucial.''
The ESCAP event was part of the program to mark World Water Day, which falls on Mar. 22. The emphasis on sanitation for this year's event stems from 2008 being declared as the International Year of Sanitation.
Ensuring better sanitation, furthermore, is one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that world leaders agreed at a 2000 UN summit to meet by 2015. Goal Seven of the MDGs' eight goals was a pledge to halve by the deadline the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
The Asian continent offers a major challenge for such an ambitious development program, since it is home to giants like China and India. China accounts for a third of the region's 1.5 billion people without safe sanitation, while India accounts for another third.
During a review of progress made halfway into the MDGs timeline, the UN revealed that China had ''traveled less than half the distance to its target,'' while India's efforts were ''not enough to stay on track.'' Bangladesh, another populous South Asian nation, had also fallen behind, with the UN saying it ''too is off track.''
Even smaller countries like Cambodia and Laos are burdened with few toilets. Currently, only 17 percent of Cambodia's rural population, where the majority of the country's 14.8 million population live, have access to toilets, says Nasir Hassan of the World Health Organisation. In neighboring Laos, only 30 percent of the population have access to basic sanitation.
By contrast, Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Brunei have 100 percent sanitation coverage, while Thailand has 99 percent coverage and Malaysia, 94 percent.
Yet Thailand's success offered a note of caution, since it was not accompanied by a dramatic drop in waterborne diseases. ''Despite a near 100 percent sanitation coverage, the morbidity rates did not come down,'' Dr. Twisuk Punpeng, a senior advisor at Thailand's ministry of public health, told IPS. ''New toilets alone will not reduce morbidity rates. Good hygiene practices are also essential.''
According to the United Nations, the lack of basic sanitation leaves the world's poor vulnerable to preventable diseases. ''Globally, one child dies every 20 seconds as a result of poor sanitation.''
Diarrheal disease remains the leading killer of children under five years in the East Asia and Pacific region, states the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in a document circulated at the conference. It is responsible for 187,000 deaths annually.
Poor sanitation in the region also affects education, adds UNICEF. ''School enrollment is also affected as children, especially girls, are less likely to stay in schools without adequate water and safe, private sanitation and washing facilities.''
© 2008 Inter Press Service