20 years ago you founded World Toilet Organization to draw attention to a taboo. Are you satisfied with what you have achieved?
Jack Sim: In any case, it is astonishing that our small organization has survived 20 years and that we are still active! When we first started, basic sanitation was such an embarrassing topic that it has been tucked away within the more glamorous water agenda. With a mixture of humor and serious facts, we were able to achieve a lot of media coverage. We have since held World Toilet Summits around the globe to encourage people and governments to demand and provide adequate sanitation. Our founding day, November 19th, was adopted by all 193 countries of the United Nations as official World Toilet Day, which gave the states a strong legitimation to tackle their own sanitation challenges. A lot has happened: in 2001 there were six billion people in the world, today there are 7.9 billion. During this period, 2.5 billion people had access to toilets for the first time - we assume that half of them have benefited from the global toilet movement.
Do we still need a WTO and a Mr. Toilet today?
Sim: We want to leave a legacy: everyone should have access to a clean toilet anywhere and anytime, which has a safe treatment system and does not pollute the environment. That's still a big goal. Because today the topics of climate change and Covid dominate, there is also countless other news about sports, politics, entertainment or fashion - so we have to fight hard to keep our outsider topic visible so that things can change for the better. With Mister Toilet it is possible to leave a lasting impression on people. That's why there are also films and a book about him and my own life story is now being filmed as a TV series.
Are you optimistic that the global goal of “adequate sanitation for all by 2030” will be achieved?
Sim: To date, the wastewater of around four billion people has not been treated. The situation is improving every day, but in 2030 we will not be left with one hundred percent safe basic sanitation. In addition, the Covid crisis has brought hundreds of millions of people back below the poverty line. But there is also something encouraging: there has been a growing awareness that public health preventive measures are cheaper than treatment. Many governments are now also recognizing the clear connection between sanitation and gross domestic product.
Where do you see great successes?
Sim: China has lifted its population out of poverty and is now also improving overall sanitation. I am impressed, for example, by the cleanliness of China's tourist toilets today. India has built 110 million toilets and is now running the Clean India 2.0 mission to encourage behavior change as well. Last year we managed to get the Brazilian Senate to pass a law that allows public-private partnerships for foreign investments in state sewage treatment plants.
You once said that it is not enough to build toilets, people have to use them too. What about cultural acceptance in India after the many millions of toilets have been built?
Sim: People who have always relieved themselves in public do not see this as a problem. In India, therefore, a new type of marketing is needed to make toilet use the norm. Emotional triggers such as envy, superiority, pride, self-esteem, privacy and preservation of face are therefore important tools for supplementing rational messages.
You always point out the business opportunities that lie in remedying the lack of toilets.
Sim: Yes, because charitable donations can help once, but not forever. To be sustainable, toilet solutions must be market-based and supply and demand must be efficiently coordinated. So we need to increase the demand for toilets and make toilets sexy. Only when toilets are a status symbol and in demand like cell phones will poorer people use their money to build, use and maintain their toilets.
As a toilet expert, is there anything that still can surprise you in that subject ?
Sim: Working as Mister Toilet has taken me to 20 countries in 64 years, from the World Economic Forum in Davos to the slums in India, townships in South Africa, villages in Cambodia and favelas in Rio. I have also trained at universities in Singapore and in the USA in subjects such as ecology, sociology, bacteriology, marketing, business models, cultural studies and logistics. One thing became clear to me: the toilet is closely related to human survival. Everything is simply related to her!