OVERHEARD from a toddler visiting her mother’s home country for the first time: Why is there no toilet paper in your public toilets?

Before her mother could answer, the toddler already had an even more difficult follow-up: Don’t people here clean up?

Filipinos are conditioned to expect public toilets not to work, like most things operated by the government or used by the public. The most discriminating may prefer to pay for the use of toilets where the user’s fee and the presence of staff cleaning the stalls after every use guarantee no unpleasant discoveries.

The majority of Filipinos grin and bear it. Many public school students bring or fetch water daily because their classroom may have a toilet but no running water. Travelers reflexively cover their nose and mouth or hold their breath before entering the toilets of bus or boat terminals because, from experience, everyone enters a “comfort room (CR)” in these places only when the need is dire or the next chance to use a toilet requires a palm reader.

“Wrap and throw”

It should console the mother and daughter from Sydney that their close encounter with the country’s infamous public CRs was at least in a mall. In many urban communities, the standard operating procedure (SOP) is “wrap and throw.”

In the 1990s, a researcher sketching a map of a Cebu City barangay’s public infrastructures came upon an unused public market. Constructed through a foreign loan, the facility was envisioned by technocrats to serve as a fish port-cum fish drying facility-and-public market. Local residents preferred to deliver directly to and trade in Carbon Market. Only children and dogs were using the empty stalls that morning.

When the researcher and local guide used a portion of the seawall to cross over to the interior of the barangay, an indescribable odor assailed their nostrils. No boats were docked. Like the fish vendors, fishermen thought the multi-million multi-purpose facility was a white elephant.

It did have one communal purpose, admitted the guide. Residents would line up along the seawall every morning or at night, depending on the schedule of their daily ritual of “wrap and throw.” The seaside view was unbeatable, said the local guide.

End to openness

Open defecation continues to be practiced openly in the country. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (Unicef), about 17.3 percent of households in Eastern Samar, Samar, Leyte, Cebu, Capiz and Iloilo defecate and dispose of their waste in the open. The area surveyed was covered

by the Philippine Approach to Total Sanitation (PHaTS).

Cebu households topped in the practice of open defecation, with involvement at 42.3 percent.

Yet, according to a June 1 article published in the “Neighborhood” section of Sun.Star Cebu, Barangay Obo-ob in the municipality of Bantayan balances the record by being the “first barangay among various target communities in Cebu Province to be declared officially ZOD (Zero-Open Defecation).”

ZOD is the behavior advocated by local governments and nongovernment partners supporting the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (Wash) program. A barangay is declared ZOD when residents build their own toilets or share one with relatives or neighbors.

Other target behaviors include the washing of hands with soap and water and proper

disposal of diapers used by infants and adults.

Barangay Obo-ob was found to have 36.4 percent of their residents, representing 181 out of 477 households, practicing ZOD. This was based on the February 2015 survey conducted by the Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), which randomly sampled 10 percent of the Obo-ob households. The IRW Philippines is carrying out the PHaTS program in 15 vulnerable communities in Bantayan and Daanbantayan, Cebu, according to the same article.

Best practices in human waste disposal emphasize not just the building of toilets by households. Toilets can be for public use and still sustain their sanitation through communal cooperation. In one of the wet markets in Cebu City, a cooperative, with assistance from a nongovernment organization, operates a public toilet where a full-time watcher maintains cleanliness, checks that faucets are not leaking and wasting water, accepts and accounts for the fees paid by users, and prepares the toilet paper dispensed according to one’s needs. A person gets more toilet paper and thus pays more for carrying out “No. 2 (defecating)” than “No. 1 (urinating).”

Many public CRs, such as those operated by parishes, show that for as low as P2 per user, personal needs and public health can be reconciled. Foreign loans and white elephants not required, too.