Video: Toilet expo brings flush of anticipation

updated 9/6/2006 9:56:16 PM ET 2006-09-07T01:56:16

Officials at a WTO summit gave the cold shoulder to a South Korean bid to take over the throne — the "throne" in this case being a toilet.

The WTO in question was not the World Trade Organization but the World Toilet Organization, which opened its annual summit on Wednesday in Moscow.

With members from some 40 countries, this WTO is smaller than the trade body but takes itself no less seriously in addressing issues of global well-being and economic progress. Much of the discussion at the opening session focused on how adequate toilets can improve a country's quality of life and even help integrate countries into the globalizing world.

It's all sober and high-stakes enough that competition emerged as to who will lead the charge. Sim Dae-Juk, chairman of the South Korean Toilet Association, used his 20-minute presentation time to announce the formation of a rival group, the World Toilet Association.

Jack Sim, head of the WTO, wasn't pleased. Referring to the Korean as "this politician," he said "The WTO has absolutely no interest in joining his organization."

Other delegations acted as if a bad smell had wafted into the conference room and pledged support for the WTO.

‘I am a representative of toilet culture’
Later, the insurgent Sim spoke with the nonplussed Russian organizers of the summit. Through a translator, he said he'd discuss his power-play strategy in more detail during the summit's subsequent two days, but he wanted to make one point clear: "I am a representative of toilet culture, not a politician."

Summit participants might be the only people who can say "toilet culture" without snickering, and they're determined to get the rest of the world to join them. That includes promoting seemingly unlikely ventures such as a WTO rock concert.

"You cannot imagine singers singing about toilets and sanitation, but this will be done," the organization's head said.

"People seem to laugh a bit when I tell them I'm chairman of the (British) Toilet Association, but then ... they say 'wait a minute, there's a reason we need a toilet organization'," said Sir William Lawrence.

Lawrence, who also works in Britain's tourism sector, said ensuring adequate and tolerable public facilities is key to a country's ability to grab a piece of the world's burgeoning recreational travel market.

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Speaking of his colleagues in a tourism organization, he said "When they get complaints about our country, the complaints are mostly about the toilets."

‘The toilet is the competitive edge’
Sim of the WTO painted an even broader picture, saying that poor public toilets can undermine a country's workforce: if toilets are so rare or repulsive that people wait to get home to relieve themselves, that suppression can lead to bladder and colon diseases," he said.

"In fact, the toilet is the competitive edge of a nation," said Sim, whose country of Singapore is noted both for fastidious loos and a thriving economy.

Host country Russia's economy also is robust, but its toilets are another matter. Public restrooms are generally few and discouraging once found: often dark, eye-wateringly smelly, frequently lacking paper, soap and even seats for the commodes. That's if there are commodes at all; many Russian restrooms use the Asian-style squat toilets rather than European sit-downs.

Vladimir Moksunov of the Russian Toilet Association defended the mix of plumbing, saying that because Russia spans Europe and Asia it should provide facilities that are comfortable for both cultures. But he bemoaned their condition.

"The image of our country is suffering greatly from this problem," he said.

Theories vary as to why Russian public toilets are generally poor. Valery Gvozdev, of the biotoilet manufacturer Bioecologiya, said in a paper for the the summit that Russia's notoriously laborious bureaucracy is to blame, not "a specific overall public mentality."

But in another paper, Alexander Lipkov of the Andre Konchalovsky Fund that promotes health initiatives, cites Russian's ingrained contempt for regulations. He notes fund founder Konchalovsky's theory that the problem also stems from Russia's rejection of Protestant culture which "insists on personal responsibility with which the Russian person has never had a relationship."

Moksunov, however, noted one Russian triumph in the matter of handling what conference participants call "the products of vital human activity."

On the international space station "they all want to go to our toilet ... it's very comfortable," he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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