Monday, March 7, 2011

Toilet Troubles

A portaloo decorated by residents in the suburb of Sumner in Christchurch.
Photo / Getty Images

Posted on another blog that I follow, I just read an article by David Fisher in the New Zealand Herald describing declining conditions in Christchurch, New Zealand suburbs after the 6.3 earthquake that hit that area almost two weeks ago.  The surprise?  The decline doesn't seem to result from a lack of food or shelter or even from untreated injuries or damage from the earthquake.  The cause?  A lack of toilets.

From the article:

Tears flowing down his cheeks, burly Canterbury mechanic Keith Mackie was trying to explain that life's basic necessities have been forgotten. . .  "We didn't complain. We just suck it in. After nine days we got a chemical toilet. I had to empty the chemical toilet this morning . . ."  The nearest Port-a-Loo - a decent walk away - was filled to overflowing.  Mr Mackie, retching, drove around trying to find another one into which he could empty his chemical toilet. Again and again, he found the same problem. "I've seen a lot in my life, but this takes the cake."

. . . St Heliers Cres resident Kevin Guy said the lack of toilets and housing threatened to send the disaster out of control. "People will die of this."  He said elderly residents in his street tried to go to the toilet outside in yesterday morning's rain.  "I live near a woman in her 70s who broke down crying, too embarrassed to go to the toilet in a bucket."

Another woman who would not be named said the focus on the central city had ignored thousands of people who were living in squalid conditions.  "The dead people are important but they don't need to go to the toilet. I do."1

Reports reference the planned distribution of 7,000 chemical toilets and more than 1200 portaloos.6  Prime Minister John Keys was quoted as saying, "I think pretty much every portaloo in Australasia is on its way."2   In the meantime, individuals have resorted to stealing portaloos and moving them from areas that they perceived as having plenty.  Kerre Woodham from the Daily Herald quipped that it was "The Battle of Portaloo."5

In the end, even with significant distribution of toilet facilities, there isn't enough (or enough upkeep) to meet the sanitation needs of the 300,000 people impacted by this earthquake.  Sewer lines have been severed and/or overwhelmed by liquefaction.  There is no short-term fix.  Lines are "still some way from repair".This is all made even worse by the lack of running water in more than 20% of the city.  Unfortunately in the meantime, overflowing toilets and the resulting lack of sanitation can ultimately lead to sickness and potentially death. 

Knowing how to address your own sanitation needs could be an essential skill for many different emergency situations.  Unfortunately, it isn't as simple as just digging a hole.  It might be time to think about what YOU would do if the sewer and water were not available in your home for a long period of time, which could be 2 days or more.  What would you do with waste, trash, etc that is starting pile up in your home from day to day living (survival)?  So there is one more thing to think about and plan for in case of an emergency.

1 - Christchurch earthquake:  A new living hell
2 - Key visits hard-hit eastern suburbs
3 - Quake to cost insurers up to $16b
4 - Christchurch earthquake: Latest updates
5 - The best of human nature
6 - Christchurch earthquake: Many face weeks of temporary toilets

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