NANJING, July 14 (Xinhua) -- Toilets in the Chinese countryside have earned a nasty reputation, with some little more than ramshackle shelters surrounded by bunches of cornstalk and others just open pits next to pigsties.
However, a toilet revolution is under way as the Chinese government scrambles to meet a UN health target requiring 75 percent of rural areas to have sanitary toilets by this year.
China's national standard requires "sanitary" toilets in rural homes to have walls, roofs, doors and windows and to be at least two square meters in size. They may be flush toilets or dry toilets with underground storage tanks.
Provincial officials around the country said they have been urged to renovate sub-standard toilets and build new ones for farmers.
"Toilets seem like quite an insignificant thing, easily overlooked, but we find it to be an important and quite difficult task," Chen Xiaojin, deputy chief of the health department in eastern China's Jiangsu Province, told Xinhua.
Currently, 94 percent of rural Jiangsu homes have sanitary toilets. Chen said Jiangsu boasts the highest number of up-to-standard toilets in the country, thanks to persistent work in persuading and assisting rural residents to upgrade their facilities.
Sanitary toilets are a health priority for Jiangsu officials. The provincial health department publishes a ranking of cities each month based on their work to build new toilets. Officials who have slacked risk being reprimanded.
According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission, a national figure on rural toilets will not be available until the end of the year. But the commission said China should have no problem meeting the UN target, as the 2014 figure had already reached 74 percent. China will set an additional national target of 85 percent for 2020.
"We must realize the period from now to 2020 is crucial. We are under a lot of pressure, and officials at every level must advance with the campaign," said Li Bin, head of the commission, at a national conference last December.
In Yongkang Village in central Jiangsu, villager Bu has just finished building a flush toilet.
"This kind of new, high-quality toilet is much better and cleaner with no smell," he said. His old one was a thatched space full of flies and maggots. "In the countryside, toilets used to be the dirtiest places. Now they have become the cleanest spots," he said.
In Bu's village, households received 800 yuan (about 129 USD) each from the government to rebuild or renovate their toilets during the first half of 2015. The average home toilet upgrade costs about 3,000 yuan (about 483 USD), and the farmers must pay the costs not covered by the subsidies.
From 2004 to 2013, China's central government earmarked 8.27 billion yuan to build toilets in rural areas. Farmers who have agreed to build new toilets are eligible to receive the funds. The amounts vary from 150 yuan in central and western China to 500 yuan in eastern and southern regions, where building materials are more expensive. Local governments with deeper pockets may also offer additional subsidies to villagers.
However, officials claim convincing rural residents to change their toilets is a challenge. "Most villagers are used to their way of using the toilet. It is hard to change," said Wang Zhigang, Communist Party secretary in Tanggou Township in northern Jiangsu.
Farmers collect feces to be composted on their farmland. If they use flush toilets, no compost will be left behind. Dry toilets with tanks bring the extra task of regular cleaning.
"We had to build a few toilets first and take villagers to visit, and then encourage them to build new ones," he said. Slogans such as "sanitary toilets improve lives" are painted on walls of rural homes. TV stations are told to air videos promoting the use of better toilet facilities.
Fu Yanfen, a researcher at China Disease Prevention and Control, warned that about 80 percent of contagious diseases such as diarrhea and cholera in rural China are caused by contamination from toilets.
"The improvement of rural health has a profound impact on rural life and the rural economy. The local government must keep up with their work. We should continue to help the villagers in the repair, cleaning and maintenance of these facilities," Health Minister Li Bin said.