Diseases love chaos. Earthquakes, tsunamis or other natural disasters can all wreck latrines and sewers, giving bugs free rein to multiply in the resulting floodwaters. Add masses of weakened, hungry people living at close quarters – refugee camps are perfect – and you have an infectious disease paradise. Wars, where exhausted soldiers often live in primitive conditions, are equally hospitable. During the American Revolution, more soldiers died of disease, much of it hygiene-related, than from wounds. During Second World War battles in north Africa, Allied troops suffered half as much disease as Germans. Enemy positions, noted British Army colonel H.S. Gear, were “obvious from the amount of feces lying on the ground.”
A quarter of the city’s sewage, 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools-full, leaked
Yet hygiene and sanitation are often far down emergency planners’ priorities. Providing shelter, food and drinking water comes first. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, 20,000 people sheltered for weeks in the Superdome stadium, even though it had only two functioning toilets.
When the earth shook in Christchurch, New Zealand, last February, it wrecked the sewer system. A quarter of the city’s sewage – 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools-full – leaked every day (and is still leaking). Countless toilets were also destroyed or useless. Portable toilets were provided, but not enough. Perhaps aware that the peak time for disease outbreak is 10 days after a disaster, many Christchurch inhabitants soon sought a self-help solution.
After the earthquake, Christchurch resident Jason Moore thought people needed cheering up. His online competition Show Us Your Longdrop – as New Zealanders call a pit latrine – attracted more than 100 entries. The prizewinning longdrop, constructed by the Lambert family, featured separate facilities for women (a toilet) and men (the bush).
How to build your own longdrop:
The depth of your longdrop’s pit will depend on how long you intend to use it. For emergencies, a meter is good enough, while six meters would last a family of four for years. If truly stuck, use a bucket.
Your toilet seat can be conventional or a chair with a hole cut in it. If your chairs are metal, make a hole in a plank of wood and lay it between two.
Enclosures can consist of a curtain, a screen of hay-bales, corrugated iron or nothing at all, depending on your personal privacy preferences.
For the best odor control, throw lime into the pit after every defecation. Ash or sawdust is also good. Soil, however, is too moist and full of bacteria.