Survival Sanitation: Unpleasant But Necessary Conversations

Pooping…there’s nothing we like better as a society than sharing our defecation experiences.

OK, you got me. This is not a subject for “proper” conversation. While we all have to do the “Number 2” to survive, it remains a very private experience. Couples that don’t think twice about urinating in front of each other draw the line here.

Under normal circumstances, the details of elimination are pretty straightforward. Wipe, flush, and you’re done. But in a significant disaster, our options for “sanitation” are few and ignorance of proper disposal of waste can lead to discomfort, discord, and health hazards.

Having this survival sanitation discussion in advance with the whole family is an important step in normalizing this uncomfortable adjustment to our hygiene habits.

An emergency toilet in action

I have a story to illustrate how even highly trained emergency responders have trouble with this issue. I was the Team Leader of a 150-member federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team, trained and equipped to set up a medical clinic with physicians, nurses, and paramedics in the midst of the worst disaster areas. Our team had a field exercise where we set up our field toilets, basically a 5-gallon bucket with a plastic seat and a “Wag-Bag,” a plastic liner with a gelling agent inside to capture waste and allow disposal in regular garbage.

All personnel were trained in how to use it, and yet at the end of the first day it was clear that some refused to follow the directions. Some Wag-Bags were left on the ground, some of the buckets were filled with waste, it was a mess. As a result, our new procedure was to assign a monitor to inspect each toilet after use so our health could be maintained.

Why planning for survival sanitation is so important

Let’s examine the problem. Potable water and working sewers are necessary for modern sewage systems to operate. In many areas, electrical power drives the pumps for potable water and sewage systems. Private well pumps also rely on electricity. So any disaster that affects the power grid will impact your sanitation strategy. Still, if you have the water available and an intact sewer or septic tank, pouring water into the toilet will allow normal flushing.

More complicated disasters such as floods can directly affect potable water and sewage systems by causing backflows and interfering with gravity-flow systems. In this case, sewer lines can become a direct threat to you unless you have a valve or plug to prevent backflow into your house.

Similar issues can develop with your septic system. Earthquakes can create a whole new level of havoc, breaking both potable and sewage water lines and causing cross-contamination. Depending upon what hazards are common to your area, you should plan for the worst case.

Options for emergency toilets

There are several options for waste disposal if the traditional toilet is not available. The closest thing to the normal toilet experience is the camping (chemical) toilet, available in the $40-$100 range. These units have a several-gallon waste tank, a small water tank and some kind of pump for flushing. The operation is similar to a regular toilet, and a chemical is used to deodorize the waste. For short-term use, this is a good solution; however in situations where water is at a premium, the water used for flushing is better used for drinking or washing.

For many families, the simplest plan will be using a 5-gallon bucket and sawdust or dirt. This is the “composting” method, where waste is allowed to naturally decompose into compost material. When someone does their business, they cover the waste with sawdust or dirt which helps control odors and introduces helpful bacteria into the pile. This method isn’t ideal, but in long-term situations it manages the solid waste in a hygienic manner. The “compost” needs to be mixed every few days to assure oxygen is getting to all parts of the mixture…and a lid must be kept on to keep pests out.

One problem with this method is that the compost should be moist but not damp to facilitate breakdown, so only limited urination can be accommodated. A separate bucket for urinating should be kept, this liquid can be disposed remote from living areas and can be used to water plants outside. The Wag Bag system I previously mentioned allows you to avoid the composting details, but they are an expensive alternative especially for large groups or long time periods.

The most basic sanitation method is the slit latrine, a narrow but deep and long hole in the ground over which you squat and do your thing. The idea is to start at one end and as each person poops, they stir their contribution into the dirt with a stick and cover it. Some provision of privacy is provided with hanging sheets or other barriers. As long as this trench is located away from ground water sources, this is fairly hygienic.

For an in-depth view of outdoor elimination, check out Kathleen Meyer’s How to Shit in the Woods.

About that Poop Party chit-chat…

But just having the equipment available doesn’t solve the problem, as my example above shows. You need to have the Talk. The Talk should include:

  • Acknowledging that the situation is uncomfortable
  • Noting that everybody has to do their business
  • This is the best compromise for everyone, whatever option works best for you.
  • The situation is only for a limited time.
  • Everyone’s privacy will be respected.

Our discomfort with the subject of sanitation doesn’t relieve us from planning for our needs in an emergency. Addressing the subject in advance, with a healthy dose of humor, with make this aspect of weathering a disaster a little less uncomfortable.

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