THOMAS Crapper, the legendary 19th century English toilet manufacturer, would have approved of Phnom Penh’s newest public facilities. The modern two-storey structure on the river near Chaktomuk Theatre was funded by the South Korea-based World Toilet Association (WTA).
In addition to the open-air roof terrace, it has an air-conditioned tourist information space with computer terminals and a wall-mounted flat screen TV. As well as providing local people and foreign visitors with clean facilities, the new building also aims to help raise awareness about the importance of proper toilets in Cambodia.
Based on the fact they are often alluded to indirectly – “going to the bathroom”, “using the facilities” – toilets seem to have become something of a taboo in everyday parlance. This is also reflected in international organisations where toilets are eclipsed by broader social issues such as public health.
According to Jan-William Rosenboom from World Bank Water and Sanitation Program Cambodia, rural or urban sanitation is barely mentioned in the National Strategic Development Plan and receives no budget.
“Diarrhoea – mostly caused by inadequate hygiene, sanitation and water supplies – kills 11,000 Cambodians every year. [This is] more than are killed by AIDS, TB and malaria combined,” he said. According to Rosenboom, the lack of sanitation accounts for US$448 million per year in health, water and pollution costs, lost tourism and other welfare costs in the country.
However, the WTA pilot project on the riverfront seems like a step in a positive direction. The 13 toilets on the ground floor are surprisingly clean and well maintained by a local attendant. According to the attendant, the toilets are used mostly at weekends by up to 60 Khmer and 20 foreigners a day. It still has some way to go to reach the projected number of 40,000 users, but then the building only opened less than three months ago.
The first floor tourist information space seems yet to have found its purpose, too. The computer terminals – set up by the Ministry of Tourism – are not connected and the “information” consists mainly of a number of outdated free magazines and advertising leaflets for some hotels and restaurants.
However, if you install yourself on the roof terrace with a free copy of WTA’s publication, Toilet Angel, you can read all about how toilets “are the hope and happiness for mankind”. Crapper couldn’t have expressed it better himself.