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Beijing struggles to ease the call of nature for visitors of the Olympics

Some five million overseas tourists, more than 120 million domestic travelers, and around seven million spectators will be doing what 300,000 athletes, referees, journalists, and sports officials from over 200 countries and regions have crossed the seas to do at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

 All will be witnessing history. And all will be cramming into the city’s 5,000 public toilets.

 The number of Beijing toilets is considered a lot for an average city. But for a city hosting a single event with a staggering number of visitors — and having something more than pride at stake — 5,000 dumping stations may not be enough. What’s worse, these public restrooms, which the Chinese began constructing just a couple of years ago, are so-called “Chinese toilets.” Meaning, they’re the squat-on-the-floor, flush-less type.

Squat, Pop

A basic “Chinese toilet” is nothing more than a hole in the floor. The floor and some parts of the wall may be tiled or lined with slabs. The facility is housed in straw or wooden sheds, oftentimes without doors (especially true for those in the countryside or rural areas).

There is neither flush water, soap, nor even toilet paper in these supposed rooms of comfort. So travelers are advised to bring their own cleaning articles. Better yet, according to the government, bring along a hand sanitizer and keep it close-by, just as you would your passport.

Another piece of advice from grizzled China tourists: Do it fast, but take it slow. After using the facility, the first thing you will want to do is dash out for a breath of fresh air. So do your business quickly, but beware of touching the smeared walls or stepping on the grimy floor. You may just slip on someone else’s mess.

Follow the Smell

Although, many find the stench unbearable but, believe it or not, this could be an advantage. If you’re rushing to relieve yourself, don’t panic if you don’t know where the toilet is — just follow the smell (or, perhaps, the swarm of flies).

The squat toilet, common in many developing countries, is a fixture in most Chinese homes, and is the only type available in many small towns. In most public areas, they’re housed in separate sheds.

These water-less lavatories are common in big cities too. They’re even found in hotel rooms, trains, and boats. You may even be surprised to find them in buildings located in urban areas or tourist spots.

Not for the Shy

Don’t be shocked if you can’t find a door to shut yourself from public view. Toilet stalls in China are often without doors — or even curtains. What’s more, since these facilities are in short supply, be prepared to fall in line to do your business. This is, maybe, the most difficult thing someone used to Western lavatories will have to deal with. Because when your turn comes, you’ll have to use the toilet with someone else doing their business opposite you!

The hole in the ground usually leads to a small canal, which joins waste from other cubicles in a common sewage system. To the Chinese, your business is, well, serious business, since it fulfills ones civic duty to supply the country’s vast farmlands with fresh fertilizer everyday.

Public toilets in China are actually designed so excrement can easily be scooped from pits and canals, and then dumped into drums that are transported to farms.

Wealth From Waste

For thousands of years, China’s farmers have collected the nation’s staggering daily production of human excrement and urine, and turned it into fertilizer.

This stool-urine mix, called “night soil,” is collected and stored in large ceramic tanks or watertight concrete pits, in which the mix soon becomes a heavy, dark syrup.

Human dung and urine from households are unloaded from chamber pots and transported in buckets to processing areas. Often, the waste is deposited directly to storage tanks, which are located in the animal stall or toilet area of the household.

Night soil used to be an important fertilizer for nearly all crops, including rice and wheat, but is now applied mostly to small-scale agricultural plots. Unlike the chemical fertilizers commercial croppers prefer, night soil is applied in liquid form, making it heavier and more difficult to transport.

Toilet Talk

While public defecating means wide-scale big business in China, many groups, notably the World Toilet Organization (WTO), have raised health and sanitation concerns about the practice.

Just last month, the 7th World Toilet Summit was held in New Delhi to discuss what most organizations, even governments, hesitate to discuss. The WTO lamented the inaccessibility of toilets and warned governments of the dramatic consequences of the situation. According to the group, almost a third of the global population has no access to toilets. This has led to millions of deaths each year, affecting mostly impoverished children.

Citing United Nations reports, the WTO said diarrhea alone, which results from poor sanitation and hygiene, has caused the death of over two million children in developing nations.

Around 2.6 billion people who have no access to toilets generate more than 200 million tons of excrement annually, which are neither collected nor treated, and are often not disposed of via proper sewage systems.

Although China and Taiwan previously hosted the summit (which attracts hundreds of health workers, plumbing manufacturers, and sundry toilet aficionados annually), progress in China’s sewage sector has remained slow.

Chinese Invention

The irony in all this is that China is said to have invented the first, seating flush toilet, commonly associated with the West, some 2,000 years ago.

A recent archaeological dig in Henan Province uncovered an antique latrine complete with running water, a stone seat, and even a comfortable armrest!

Found in the tomb of a king of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 24 AD), the stool-type, “top-grade” flush toilet predated the creation of Thomas Crapper, a London plumber. Crapper is widely attributed for the flushing pan’s invention in the late-19th century.

The Chinese king’s toilet was made at a time when the rest of the world relieved themselves wherever they pleased or happened to be. At around this time, Ancient Romans, the inventors of plumbing, sat in public rooms to defecate on latrines that looked like benches with holes. The feces were then dumped over running water and carried off to the Tiber River via open and underground sewers.

Olympic Dilemna

Beijing is still wrestling with the herculean challenge of human-waste disposal as it prepares to host the Olympics next year. Just last month, preparations were made to ship around 3,000 portable toilets from India to augment the city’s limited facilities and keep the games clean.

However, many wonder what will happen once the games end. Will current efforts make a permanent impact on the country’s toilet culture?

No matter what pundits say, one thing cannot be denied. The country that produces the world’s largest volume of human waste can’t afford to mess this up.

print ed: 12/07


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