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Originally published March 21, 2013 at 9:04 PM | Page modified March 22, 2013 at 11:02 AM

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Global water problems get a fresh approach at local school

When it comes to expanding access to clean water around the globe, activists say to think of the poor as potential customers — not people who need charity.

Special to The Seattle Times

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As if high school isn’t awkward enough, I’m sitting among tittering teenagers in Chief Sealth’s auditorium listening to a man yell about poop.

Today is World Water Day, but at Chief Sealth International High School in West Seattle, the entire week has been an exploration of water issues around the world.

This is the third year of Sealth’s World Water Week. The theme for the week is “sanitation,” which is why Jack Sim, also know as “Mr. Toilet,” is visiting from Singapore.

“When we are children our parents tell us not to talk about ... ” excrement, says Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, which promotes improved sanitation around the world. “That’s a problem because you can’t improve what you can’t talk about.”

Sim uses humor and sometimes shock — he has a series of slides that show people in poor countries defecating outside — to get people’s attention. But once he’s got it, the message is serious.

“Two and half billion people don’t have access to a toilet,” says Sim, causing the giggles and groans of disgust to die down; “One and half million children die of diarrhea each year.”

Sim is a businessman who says he went through a midlife crisis and ended up with a nonprofit instead of a “sports car or mistress.”

He believes that everyone in the world can have access to proper sanitation in 15 to 20 years — but only if companies start seeing the poor as potential customers and learn to sell toilets and sanitation systems to new markets in the developing world.

“More factories and businesses are set up to supply only to the top- and the middle-class people,” says Sim.

He grew up in Singapore and says his country wrenched itself from poverty to wealth through hard work, not charity. “You have to [think of] the whole world, all 7 billion people, as customers.”

There’s something about global water and sanitation issues that attracts innovators and risk-takers.

“Mr. Toilet,” with his potty mouth and market solutions is one high-profile example.

Matt Damon, who humorously declared this year that he won’t “go to the bathroom” until the world’s water and sanitation crisis is over, is another.

It’s not just celebrities who are inspired to action. Five years ago, I traveled to eastern Africa to report on water scarcity and water-sanitation issues and was amazed by the experimental solutions and exciting projects I encountered.

I met Seattle’s own Water 1st International, which wasbuilding sustainable-water projects in Ethiopia, and talked to Kenyans training residents in slums how to use solar power to clean dirty water (all you need is a clear water bottle and six hours of sun!)

But for all that innovation, we’re not keeping up. Listening to Sim’s presentation, I was sad to see that the statistics hadn’t actually improved much.

“When we first started, it was 2.4 billion people who don’t have access to proper sanitation and then ... it became 2.6 billion,” says Sim.

While the number has now dropped to 2.5 billion, he says, “The amount of toilets that are supplied is not enough to catch up with the population growth.”

Sim likens solving the problem to “running after a running train.”

His belief that market-based solutions can slow that train are shared by others in the sector.

“Let’s not see them as poor people we’re trying to help, but see them as potential customers,” says Amelia Lyons, of Splash, a Seattle-based international water and hygiene organization, who attended Sealth’s World Water Week.

“Coca-Cola doesn’t say ‘These people are too poor to buy Coke.’ They see them as customers, and they go out to sell them Coke, and they buy Coke.”

It surprised me to hear that one of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our time might be solved through free markets and lessons learned from multinational corporations — it feels distant from the “clean water and sanitation is a basic human right” language that I’m used to hearing.

But then I thought back to all the Cokes I drank while on that water-reporting trip in eastern Africa — because it was the only drink available that I knew wouldn’t make me sick.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle's international connections. Sarah Stuteville: sarah@seattleglobalist.com. Twitter: @SeaStute

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