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In 2001, Singaporean businessman Jack Sim founded the World Toilet Organization to bring attention to the lack of sanitation in developing countries. Travellers are still taking part in the organization’s annual World Toilet Day (19 November), which seeks to break toilet taboos with humorous public education campaigns and events around the globe.

The problem
A staggering 2.5 billion people – that’s one in every three people worldwide – do not have access to a clean toilet. Around 1.1 billion people are forced to defecate and urinate in the open. The resulting contaminated water leads to diarrheal diseases, which kill more young children in the developing world than HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

There are also massive economic costs associated with poor sanitation. The World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program reported that per year, poor sanitation costs India nearly three trillion rupees  ($53.8 billion), East Asia around 88.5 trillion Indonesian rupiah ($9.2 billion) and Kenya around 27.7 billion shillings ($324 million). These astounding price tags reflect the increased costs for providing health care and accessing potable water (both for households and agricultural purposes) and the related decrease in tourism dollars, since places with poor sanitation are less attractive to travellers.

The solutions
The World Health Organization finds that investing just $1 in improved sanitation yields an economic return of between $3 and $34 depending on which part of the world you are in. As part of World Toilet Day, the World Toilet Organization is circulating a petition for the United Nations to “keep its promises” on improving sanitation and clean water – part of the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals, which also include halving extreme poverty by 2015. The petition will be given to the UN during the 2013 Millennium Development Goals Summit in September 2013.

Last year around this time, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Reinvent the Toilet challenge, motivating engineers to build a better toilet. The $100,000 first prize went to a solar-powered toilet that turns human waste into energy while filtering the used water to make it suitable for irrigation.

According to Sim, one of the most important ways to solve the worldwide sanitation problem is to talk about it. “What we don’t discuss, we can’t improve”, he said during a TED talk in Taipei. (TED is a non-profit dedicated to spreading ideas in technology, entertainment and design.) So, around the world on Monday, events will be taking place to break down that barrier. Here are a few highlights from this year’s World Toilet Day celebrations:

London, England
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine launched an exhibition featuring toilet designs and scientific tools for the study of human waste. It also showcases a golden sculpture of the very stuff World Toilet Day is all about containing.

Durban, South Africa
Following World Toilet Day, Durban, South Africa is hosting the 2012 World Toilet Summit from 4 to 6 December. The South African Toilet Organisation is also currently holding an African Toilet Design Competition, similar to the Gates effort last year.

Bettiah, India
The Nirmal Bharat Yatra organization, focused on sanitation and hygiene, is presenting a participatory art exhibition that encourages visitors to decorate their toilets with illustrations and messages on why sanitation matters. Other activities include a competition to see who can squat the longest, a game of “Musical Toilets”, and a photo booth where visitors can pose on a fake toilet seat.

Portland, United States
In Oregon, the organization PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human) is promoting the use of an emergency toilet in the Pacific Northwest. It separates urine from faeces and allows for ecologically sound composting.

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