Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
People call him “Mr. Toilet,” and for Jack Sim, nothing could make him more proud.
Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, flew from Singapore to deliver the keynote presentation of World Water Week at Chief Sealth International High School on Tuesday night. It’s the school’s third annual WWW, billed as a “local ideas festival.” This year’s theme, according to student leaders, is centered around toilets, sanitation and health – a truly global issue with truly local connotations.
Sealth students worked tirelessly to plan this week’s events, along with social studies teacher Noah Zeichner, who serves as faculty leader for the project.
(Sealth teacher Noah Zeichner, left, with Jack Sim and an audience member.)
Tuesday’s night’s events kicked off with a Water and Health Resource Fair, featuring a jam-packed hallway of research projects and presentations from Sealth 9th-graders:
In an adjacent hallway, representatives from a variety of organizations like King County, Splash.org, and Friendly Water for the World were on-hand to talk to visitors. We also spotted “Diver Laura” James from Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and the tox-ick.org campaign:
After the resource fair, a big crowd gathered in the Sealth auditorium for a brief awards ceremony and a few remarks from event organizers, before Sim took the stage for his keynote address about toilets, sanitation and public health.
As Sim explained, the global statistics are staggering:
- 2.6 billion people lack access to a toilet and to basic sanitation (40% of the world’s population)
- 4.1 billion people live in areas with no wastewater/excreta treatment
- 1.5 million kids under the age of 5 die from diarrhea each year
Without proper sanitation and disposal, human waste ends up out in the open or in the rivers and groundwater, further spreading disease. For Sim, who achieved success as a young businessman in Singapore but has now made public health his life’s work for 13 years, his goal is simple but lofty — “I want everybody on planet Earth to have access to clean toilets, any day, any time.” He believes that improved sanitation on a global scale is a goal that can be achieved in 15-20 years with the proper support, and he’s pleased to see people around the world start to rally behind the cause.
To get people talking about such a taboo topic, Sim said he’s worked hard to use humor and a close partnership with the media. The results have been impressive — Sim’s efforts are supported by big names like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, and by world leaders and government officials everywhere. The Gates Foundation estimates that the outreach efforts have reached 3.3 billion people, and is starting to truly change the conversation.
“When we first started doing this,” Sim said, “no politicians wanted to have their picture taken next to a toilet. Now, they compete!”
Sim showed a series of photos of global “sit-ins” (essentially, huge groups of people sitting on toilets or assuming a “squat” pose in public), holding signs and talking about the issue, along with speeches and stand-up comedy events all designed to erase the stigma and talk about the problems. Social media has been a powerful tool as well, according to Sim. He recalled that on World Toilet Day (November 19) in 2010, the movie release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” fell on the same day — “we saw that toilets were trending on Twitter, one spot behind Harry Potter, and we beat Justin Bieber!”
In addition to increasing public support for dealing with sanitation issues, Sim emphasized the importance of education when it comes to the recipients of that support. In some very poor areas of the world, the usage of toilets is a totally unfamiliar concept. “When you give someone water, they know exactly what to do with it,” Sim said. “But if you give them a toilet, they may not know what to do.” Sim added that in some parts of the world, people avoid using what few toilets may be available, either because the facilities are unsanitary or because they’re located in areas that are unsafe or violent.
Next up for Sim? He headed to New York City today to meet with United Nations officials to discuss making World Toilet Day a “UN Official Day” worldwide. “Wish me luck!” he said.
Sim closed his presentation by showing two videos previously mentioned by WSB, featuring celebrity Matt Damon’s personal “strike” against global sanitation issues (saying that the toilet has “saved more lives than any invention in human history,”) and Sealth students’ creative response to that campaign. Sim praised the efforts of Sealth students and teachers in raising awareness and getting involved, and encouraged them to keep it up.