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Emergency Sanitation -- Urban Survival

A subject often ignored in emergency preparedness or survival manuals is proper sanitation. All the planning in the world can fall apart if the members of your group become ill. After an emergency such as a flood, hurricane or earthquake, we could be faced with weeks of sanitary problems. The lack of sanitation facilities following major disaster can bring serious health risks. Proper steps must be taken to avoid post disaster illness. Flood waters may contain fecal material from overflowing sewage systems. There is always a risk of disease from eating or drinking anything contaminated with flood water.

What we are talking about is shortage of water supply coupled with broken water lines. If the untreated sewage was to pollute the water supply, people will quickly become ill or perish. Two examples of what could happen can be seen in our most recent earthquake in Haiti and post Katrina. Imagine being surrounded by water, yet not being able to drink it. With basic health care and sanitation all but destroyed, and high numbers of survivors likely left homeless, unchecked infectious disease and contamination will pose a threat to survivors. People in Haiti are now dealing with the aftermath of the quake. Water bourne diseases is the next enemy.

As we have discussed in previous articles, the human body can only be without water for a few days. Water supplies will be the first felt impact. Great care must be taken to properly purify water before drinking. Water borne diseases such as Typhoid (Salmonella typhi), Cryptosporidiosis, and Giardiasis are just a few of the survivalist's enemies. A lot of these diseases are spread by sewage. However, just because an emergency occurs, does not mean that mother nature stops taking its course. Our need to get rid of human waste will continue. It is crucial that we take a few simple steps to properly handle sanitation. The last thing you want to deal with is becoming ill while you are already dehydrated. The illness will increase the rate of dehydration and it may take a while before a medical team can get to you.

What we want to cover in this article are a few options on how to properly dispose of human waste. The two subjects are linked for obvious reasons. First the post-disaster water supply could be contaminated so proper Emergency Water Purification steps must be taken. Second, we must avoid contaminating whatever water supplies we have available to us from improper human waste disposal. If we allow the waste to sit in a toilet, insects will land on the waste and then on your food.

So what are some of our options?

  • Continue to use the toilet.
  • The bucket method.
  • Makeshift latrine (cat hole, latrine trench, straddle trench).

  • Before we build an emergency toilet we want to follow some simple rules. When creating an emergency toilet, it is always important to:

  • Locate the toilet away from food preparation or eating areas.
  • Locate latrines and portable toilets at least 100 feet away from surface water bodies such as lakes, rivers, streams, and at least 100 feet downhill or away from any drinking water source (well or spring), home, apartment, or campsite.
  • Provide a place close to the emergency toilet to wash hands that offers soap, running water, and paper towels.

Continue to use the toilet

Unless we have an ample supply of water, filling the toilet reservoir with water will not be an option. However, with the use of trash bags, we should be able to use the toilet within our home and remove the waste at a later time. The idea here is to place the bag in the toilet, and once we are done, seal the bag until next use.

This brings us to another important point. Keeping the smell down. Although we are spoiled by being able to flush the toilet any time we feel like, try to think of it as if living in an RV (recreational vehicle) or camping. There are chemicals available to help keep the odor down and break down toilet tissue in RV tanks. Often used is sawdust and quicklime (Calcium Oxide). Quicklime Is used in water and sewage treatment to reduce acidity, to harden, as a flocculant, and to remove phosphates and other impurities. Other options are cat litter or coal ash.

Bucket Toilet

There are several options to help us keep the waste either out of the home completely or covered with a lid. One of the advantages of using a bucket is the option of sealing it with a lid. The lid will help keep the smell in and insects out. If a fly gets on the feces and then lands on your food, we could have a recipe for illness.

This is a picture of one set up we have for our garage:

Makeshift latrine

What is a Latrine?

A latrine (from Latin lavatrina meaning bath) is a communal space with multiple toilets designed for human waste. It can be as simple as a hole dug into the ground to collect human waste or a multiuser set up such as the Roman latrine below:

There are several types of latrines such as the cat hole and the straddle trench. This method of waste management is only available to people who live in more rural areas. Unless a large group was able to work together and properly design a latrine, it is unlikely this would be a feasible option during an urban emergency.

Boy Scouts

As with any emergency plan, now is the time to look at your options. This will help you remain calm under the stressful situation and allow you to spend your energy in other important matters. Do you have enough land to make a latrine? Look at the type of soil. What happens when a heavy rain comes, and will it add to the contamination of the water supplies. We live in a flood-prone area so there is a good chance an outside latrine would not work. Take the time to research your options now and have the needed materials available. Make sure this often ignored area of emergency preparedness is part of your plan.

Note: Cody Lundin has a great chapter on emergency sanitation in his book titled: When All Hell Breaks Loose. The book has a lot of interesting information on post emergency urban scenarios.

Related Article:

Article on emergency water filtration

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