By Arnold R. Grahl, Rotary Editorial Staff
Jack Sim is not afraid to say the “s” word.
The founder of the World Toilet Organization shared how he was approached by a Rotarian after his presentation at the World Water Summit Friday. A teacher, the woman said she would love to use his video “Meet Mr. Toilet” in her classroom, but she would have to edit out some of the language. To Sim, that’s the heart of the problem with sanitation. It’s an uncomfortable subject for many.
“When we are children, our parents tell us not to talk about shit. That is a really serious problem. What you don’t talk about, you can’t improve,” he says. “Sex used to be taboo. Now we talk too much about it. We need to talk more about shit.”
Humor is Sim’s tool to elevate the importance of sanitation. He notes how only about 10 percent of water and sanitation projects are about sanitation, because water is much easier to understand and less awkward to talk about. He would like to change that, and thinks Rotarians can help.
Sim’s organization began observing World Toilet Day every 19 November, and this year the United Nations will recognize it as an official day. Sim said Rotarians can join in by organizing a press conference, writing a letter to their congressman, sending out tweets or Facebook posts, talking to a classroom, or organizing a cleanup project.
This year’s World Water Summit, the fifth by the Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group (WASRAG), is all about sanitation. Friday, Rotarians had a variety of workshops to choose from during breaks between keynote speakers. A special room set up in a “speed dating” style allowed Rotarians to quickly move through a number of projects and learn how they could replicate them or take part.
Keynote speaker Dr. Kamal Kar, a pioneer in an approach known as Community Led Total Sanitation, also throws the “s” word around a lot, to good effect. But he attacks the problem from a slightly different angle. To Kar, the problem is when we come in thinking we know all the answers and try to impose them upon local communities. His approach stresses bottom up solutions that involve learning from the community and drawing intensely upon local participation.
“No human being in the world wants to live in shit or eat their shit,” Kar says. “The moment they understand that if one person is defecating in the open it impacts the whole community, the magic starts from there.”
The Rotarians I talked to seemed inspired by the summit.
“It’s given me more confidence on how we need to approach our global projects with education, awareness, and follow up to make them sustainable,” says Sandra Forster, governor of District 5810 and a member of the Rotary Club of Garland, Texas.
Brigitte Cummings, president of the Rotary Club of Bayan Zurkhr, says the summit, and convention, are invaluable for getting project ideas, finding a sponsor, or fitting all the pieces together for a humanitarian effort. “The variety of people you meet, and the connections you make are incredible.”
Past RI President Bill Boyd, who will be taking over as chair of WASRAG, said the summit serves to show Rotarians the effectiveness of Rotary’s work in water and sanitation. He said WASRAG has been a perfect fit for the Foundation’s new grant model, Future Vision, because it has provided a pool of technical expertise that has helped Rotarians build projects that are more sustainable.
“Moving forward, we need to get more people involved, and make it less about a few people with a lot of knowledge,” Boyd said. “The leadership of WASRAG has done a great job. But at the end of the day, it’s more about the clubs and districts. We can’t tell them what to do. It has to be their projects.”