SEOUL Lack of proper toilet facilities and sanitation kills almost two million people a year, most of them children, the World Toilet Association said at its first meeting on Thursday.
"It is regrettable that the matter of defecation is not given as much attention as food or housing," Sim Jae-duck, the association's South Korean head, told the meeting at its recently opened lavatory-shaped headquarters south of Seoul.
Sim, a lawmaker nicknamed "Mr. Toilet", said some 2.6 billion people worldwide do not have access to proper toilet facilities, with potentially fatal consequences.
About 1.8 million people die every year from diarrheal diseases that are mainly blamed on inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene, the World Health Organisation's regional director for the Western Pacific, Shigeru Omi, told the meeting.
The majority of these deaths occur in Asia and 90 percent of the fatalities are children under the age of five, he added.
"Just imagine the number of children whose lives could be saved through simple low-cost interventions in sanitation and hygiene," Omi told the meeting.
The United Nations has declared 2008 the "Year of Sanitation" and is calling for a renewed effort to improve sanitation and hygiene facilities, especially in developing countries.
Several charities also marked World Toilet Day on Monday by launching international campaigns for more hygiene awareness and investments in toilet facilities.
The Seoul meeting, which brought together public health officials from around the world and U.N. agencies, aims to raise funds for sanitation in developing countries.
"The funding needed is not overwhelmingly large, but the return is immense," said Vanessa Tobin of U.N. children's agency UNICEF. "Political support is extremely important. Advocacy for this issue is a high priority."
According to the United Nations, spending $10 billion a year could halve the proportion of people without basic toilet facilities by 2015, and Tobin said this investment would net an estimated $84 billion in savings from improved public health and better living conditions.
In some cultures, the solution requires very little water, as is the case in sub-Saharan Africa where ash on top of a pit is often all that is needed, she said.
"It is very important to remember most people who don't have access are poor people living in rural areas," Tobin added.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Miral Fahmy)