CHRISTCHURCH EARTHQUAKES — COMPOST TOILETS

This article was written about our actions in Christchurch after the damaging earthquakes, as a voluntary response, to bring information we had about compost toilets to people who were unable to use their flush toilets because of the damage to the centralised city sewer system.

It may well be useful to you if you find yourself in the same circumstance!

COMPOST TOILETS

THEIR USE AS AN EMERGENCY RESPONSE IN CHRISTCHURCH

INTRODUCTION

There have been many responses to the earthquakes in Christchurch from people outside the region.  A network of people interested in a permaculture response to emergencies was initiated following discussions at the annual permaculture hui in Raglan during April last year.  Within 6 months, the first large earthquake affected the Christchurch area.

Following the devastation of the February earthquake, there was an informal and personal response by some members of the permaculture emergency response network to demonstrate an emergency use compost toilet to local communities most affected by the loss of the city sewer system.  A simple bucket method was developed, which was easy to use with locally available materials, and contained the human manure until it was well composted.  Simple, contained, hygienic and recycling our ‘wastes’ as beneficial resources.  A website was also set up: www.composttoilets.co.nz to provide and share information.

There was major damage to infrastructure services in Christchurch, with the sewer system in particular suffering major and very extensive damage.  There was not going to be a quick return to normality, and ‘flushing it away’ could be to your own garden or to the street or nearby waterway.

An emergency kit includes stored water and food, among a range of personal items, but when we take stuff in, other stuff comes out.  Toilet paper and a bucket is about as far as most preparedness advice goes for our most basic ‘call of nature’.  So what do you do when the municipal sewer system is busted apart, and the ‘flush out of sight’ no longer works?  This has been the case in many parts of Christchurch for over six months now.

Over time, requests from local communities resulted in a series of workshops on emergency compost toilets, with increasing interest from people (and the media).  Recently, there has been some real interest from local authorities and organisations.

These workshops have been organised and undertaken by the following members of the emergency response network (in no particular order):  James Bellamy, Lisa Johnston, Matt King, Gary Williams and Felicity Yellin.  They have been supported directly and indirectly by many other people, not least their families and friends.

From this experience, the workshop approach and content has been refined, and is now being taken to other communities around New Zealand, starting with Whangarei and Wellington.  The workshop includes a practical hands-on demonstration of the emergency compost toilets.

The permaculture emergency response network now has a project on its books, and the start of a track record.  This project was undertaken on a voluntary basis by everyone involved, as neighbourly assistance where a real need was evident and we could provide a realistic and practical option.  The direct travel expenses have now, though, been covered by a generous donation from the members of the permaculture movement, through its coordinating council.

BACKGROUND

The Christchurch earthquakes showed up the inherent vulnerability of centralised sewer systems based on water flushing to a pipe collection network and single large treatment facility.  The pipe network is underground and always leaks, and the whole pipe system from the household connection pipe to the treatment facility has to function for the system to work.

The Christchurch earthquakes not only broke the pipes and disabled the pumps, the liquefaction flows filled sewer pipes with silts and other fine material, which is very hard to remove from underground pipes.  Of all the infrastructure services (including water supply, power, telecommunications, roads and transport facilities) the sewer system is most vulnerable to damage in earthquakes and the most difficult to repair, for temporary fixes and to regain full function.  The pipes are relatively large and weak, identifying the damage is especially difficult (compared to power and water supplies, for example), and staging the restoration of full service can be very problematic.

Following the February earthquake, temporary services were provided by using relatively intact sections of the pipe network as a collector, and pumping out sewage directly from the pipes.  Direct outlets to waterways were also established from parts of the sewer network, and raw sewage has discharged from over 30 such outlets.  Cleaning out and repairing pipes or relaying shallower replacement pipes was undertaken progressively to connect areas to the central treatment facility.  However, following the large June earthquake, they virtually had to start again, given the damage and liquefaction effects of this quake.

The City sewers have been repaired and re-established again, however the connection to this system on private property is the responsibility of the owner.  Insurance pay outs are needed to fund such repairs, and in red zone areas where there will be no re-building, who will pay for a temporary connection until people move out — not the insurance company or the government.

A fully functioning sewer system connected to all occupied houses is still a long way off.  The Christchurch experience makes clear the long period of time a water-flush centralised municipal sewer system can remain non-functional.

The emergency response in Christchurch was to bring in, first mobile portaloos, and then household chemical toilets emptied into street-side collection tanks.  As a toilet system for people to use over months, it certainly left a lot to be desired!  The chemicals used can vary significantly in terms of amenity, health and environmental impacts.  Some are simply strong deodorisers (or odour changes!) without much environmental impact or health protection, others are strong sterilisers such as formaldehyde, which kill all microbes, beneficial and pathogenic.

This chemical toilet approach has proved to be a difficult and expensive exercise for the authorities, and a far from pleasant experience for many people, with some people preferring to use holes dug in their outside garden.  Larger people could not sit on them easily and even broke them.  Elderly people found it difficult to use them, and to carry the heavy liquid filled container down the street to be emptied.  Disabled people also had difficulties, with additional individual assistance being required.

PERMACULTURE RESPONSE

A permaculture response to an emergency would arise from an assessment of the particular conditions of the emergency, and what activities could be undertaken together with the local people, to facilitate a community-based re-building that related to the nature and resources of the region.  The approach of the permaculture response network is to provide assistance to communities severely affected by high impact shocks, from natural events or due to social and economic causes.  This assistance could be at a strategic level or as on-the-ground practical action.

The aim is to bring in people who have not be directly affected, and can act as a focus for much needed actions for the affected communities.  To facilitate the sharing of useful knowledge and bring about collective action in a participatory way.  The re-building may, then, be in a way that provides greater security from hazards and threats, while encouraging a local provision of the basic necessities of life, that is in tune with the natural character and conditions of the area, thereby enhancing the health and integrity of people, communities and their supporting environment.  The default response is a re-construction of what was there, using the current ‘business-as-usual’ approach.

Bringing knowledge about the composting of human manure or ‘humanure’ to Christchurch, and developing a simple and robust emergency compost toilet, well fitted this approach of the emergency response network.  All the people taking the workshops had personal experience of compost toilets, covering design, building and use.  The compost toilet is simple and uses readily available local materials, and with some assurance around hygiene and the practicalities of use, interested people are comfortable about using one.  The state of the sewer system in Christchurch after February, and the prospect of using chemical toilets, and bucketing their humanure down the street to collection tanks, definitely increased the number of “interested” people!  To many, it was just a reasonable and practical alternative, while the flush system wasn’t working, which they were very pleased to hear about.

There was a real need for an alternative, and one that was beneficial to the environment while being user-friendly, hygienic and odour free.  The workshops focused on emergency use, but the discussions always broadened out to the wider issues of recycling ‘wastes’, impacts on the city environment from the continued use of a broken system, and what could be a more resilient system in the future.

The initial visits in March were an immediate response to the February earthquake, and were partly to observe what had happened and interact with local people to get a feeling for what could be done. There were some trial workshops, which included a temporary outdoor ‘hole in the back garden’ compost toilet — a shallow hole in biologically active soil, adding a carbon cover material and keeping the urine separate as much as practical — as well as the indoor bucket system and wheelie bin composting.  In June, immediately after the strong quake of that month, another workshop was held after a request for more follow up.  People came from all around Christchurch to that workshop — in New Brighton.  They then networked themselves, with their own workshops building the emergency toilets, and later sourcing wheelie bin containers from Invercargill, with the assistance of Transition Town people in that region. These follow on activities by people in Christchurch increased markedly from workshop to workshop.

Three workshops were held during a week in August, and at the final Saturday workshop — at the New Brighton community garden — people just kept on coming, and over a 100 people packed into the garden service building.  There was sympathetic media coverage, which is an endorsement in itself, and not one easily obtained.  Staff from the City and Regional councils came to workshops, and by August there was a clear change in attitude from the local authorities, with a readiness to listen to us, which was definitely not there earlier on.  Scientists were interested in doing research to provide the numbers, or evidential information that authorities need to OK something.  In one case, this was stimulated by personal experience with compost toilets through their own need.

This community response demonstrated the need and the usefulness of what was being provided by this work, undertaken through the permaculture project that developed over time as the team work built up and the workshops continued.  At the same time, the work itself has created and refined both useful information about the use of compost toilets in emergencies, and a successful workshop approach for the sharing of this information.  The website is being maintained as a site for information and to share ideas and collectively respond to questions and queries.

The team is now taking this knowledge, and a focus on compost toilets as a community-wide option in emergencies, to other regions in New Zealand.  The response so far has been very positive, and the Christchurch experience and their very real difficulties is clearly raising interest throughout New Zealand in these issues and the potential range of options available.

The small and slow approach taken with this project is starting to bear fruit.  The actions taken in Christchurch, including all the workshops, were directly with people at a community level, and we came back only when there was a local request.  The initial steps were very small, but the message did seep out — and the adverse conditions generating an interest remained.  A repeated presence, with a willingness to return when asked, does add up, and each time we went back the ideas had filtered further, and the actions, in terms of compost toilets in use, increased.  Sharing our own practical experience gave us credibility, and our neighbourliness was certainly appreciated by those who came to the workshops.  There is also nothing like seeing the real thing, and the practical demonstration of the emergency compost toilets by people in Christchurch has been most effective in gaining acceptance.

EMERGENCY COMPOST TOILETS

The emergency compost toilet system we are recommending is described on the website, and in a booklet that can be downloaded from the site.  It uses cold composting, which relies on good air circulation rather than heat to break down the manure and kill off pathogens.

There are two stages; the use and containment in buckets within the home; and then the outside storage for compost breakdown over a long period of time in wheelie bins (or other suitable drums).  The final product of the composting is a soil humus material that can be added to a garden or onto soil and covered with a vegetative mulch or litter.  Only a small garden area is required for the spreading of the final composted material.

The toilet consists of two buckets in boxes, or containers, with a toilet seat on top.  There is a Pee bucket and a Poo bucket.  The Pee bucket has water in it and is for urine only.  It is emptied daily, as there can be a strong (ammonia) smell if stored too long.  It is best emptied after the morning pee session.  The dilution should be at least 5 parts water to 1 part urine.  Urine is sterile, and there are no health dangers from handling it, although drugs (medicinal and recreational!) and alcohol do pass through into the urine.  The diluted urine can be simply spread over any soil or grassed area.  It is a good source of nitrogen for plants.

A dry carbon material, such as leaf litter, dried grass, rough sawdust or wood shavings is used in the Poo bucket.  This material contains and covers all the deposits.  As a bulky material it ensures air flow throughout and adds the carbon matter to start the natural composting process.  Some urine is fine, and whatever comes out can go into the Poo bucket!  Some moisture is useful for composting, but there should be sufficient bulky cover material to generally absorb the moisture present.  The toilet paper goes in too.  A container of the dry carbon material is kept beside the toilet, and sufficient is added every time to ensure full coverage.  This is important to stop flies and insects being attracted to it, and to prevent odours.   Some of this material is placed in the bottom of the bucket before use.

That is the toilet inside the home.  Two buckets in containers, some water for the Pee bucket and some dry cover material for the Poo bucket.  It is simple and does not smell, and being inside is certainly appreciated, especially during a Christchurch winter

The wheelie bin (or other such covered drum) outside is where the composting takes place.  The bin ensures full containment while the composting breaks down the material to a soil beneficial and plant useable form, and the pathogens die off.

In general, pathogenic bacteria and other microbes, which can cause diseases and human illnesses, live in a non-oxygenated environment (or anaerobic conditions).  Thus they can survive and propagate in the guts of animals and humans.  On exposure to air and oxygen they die off, and the oxygen using or aerobic microbes, which thrive in compost heaps and do the breaking down, displace these microbes and prevent their reproduction.

To ensure good air circulation and separate out any liquid in the wheelie bin container, some twigs and brush is placed at the bottom of the bin, with a thick layer of bulky dry (carbon) material on top to act as an absorbing layer.  A bundle of twigs is also placed against one side of the bin, to act as an air chimney.  As required, the Poo bucket is emptied into this (covered) container, and a layer of the dry matter added as a cover layer each time.  Some soil or compost and tiger worms can be added to stimulate the composting.  The microbial life within the composting material can be enhanced by adding microorganism inoculants, such as expanded EM (effective microorganisms), which is available from Nature Farms in Christchurch — http://www.naturefarm.co.nz/ .

To reduce cleaning, the Poo bucket can be lined with paper, or other biodegradable material, which is also emptied into the composting container.  Warm water should be sufficient for bucket cleaning, with hands being washed in warm soapy water after handling.  Good hygiene practices should be maintained whenever the buckets and wheelie bins are handled.  Bleaches or other sterilizers should not be used, as this kills the microbes that are doing the composting work.  Vinegar is a useful and safe cleanser, and a vinegar and EM mix to clean and reduce odours is also available from Nature Farms.

When it is full, the composting bin is left closed for some months to mature.  To be on the safe side it can be left for a year.  For a long period of use, then, more than one wheelie bin would be required, so one can be added to, while the other is in storage.

At the workshops, we also went through a permanent compost toilet system, using replaceable bins and a hot composting of the bin material along with other organic matter.  This followed the approach of Joseph Jenkins, the author of the “The Humanure Handbook”, a guide to composting human manure.  He also went to Haiti after the large earthquake there, and a bucket system, with collection to a central community hot composting area, was set up in temporary townships.

Our workshop format now covers hot and cold composting, but focuses only on the bucket and wheelie bin emergency system and a community-wide approach with collection to a hot composting site, using other organic matter as well.

In Christchurch, there has been community composting of organic and kitchen ‘waste’ material for many years, and ‘Living Earth’ operate a very efficient hot composting system, contained in large tunnels, near the Bromley sewage treatment plant.  Their resource consent from Environment Canterbury does not allow them to use any manures.  The main issue is odour, and they undertook some experimental outdoor composting following the first September earthquake.  However, they were not allowed to continue it, and even after serious damage in the February earthquake, Environment Canterbury would not allow them to operate outside.

A community-wide compost toilet option for emergencies requires a collection arrangement, and one possibility is to use the wheelie bin transporters (of solid waste collection) to pick up clearly marked or colour coded bins of the composting humanure.  This would be a similar collection operation as that for the chemical toilets, from all the street-side tanks, but without the chemicals.  A central hot composting of the compost toilet matter could then be carried out, for example, through one of the tunnels of the ‘Living Earth’ company in Christchurch.

CONCLUSIONS

What are some lessons from the Christchurch earthquakes, and our response on compost toilets and the demonstration workshops that were held over a period of months following the February quake?

It is not a simple matter to go in and help people after a devastating event that upsets their normal rhythms and way of life.  Whatever is offered from outside has to be understood, seen as useful and be accepted by the people directly affected, despite any trauma or disorientation and psychological issues they may be struggling with.  There has to be a willingness to engage, taking actions where opportunities arise, and responding to the situation and what people need and ask for.

Suggesting something different to the norm is probably harder initially, as most people just want to get back to their normal way of living as fast as possible.  Authorities are overwhelmed, and are head down, bum up, trying to do their job and provide essential public services. Over time, though, the dislocation and on-going experience of inadequate services and the lack of the usual amenities of modern life, opens up opportunities for different thinking and unusual or uncommon alternatives.  You just have to be prepared to keep coming back, and one time after another demonstrate an alternative and its practical application in the circumstances.  Then things can happen.

Although a permaculture emergency response network existed in theory, we were in no way prepared to undertake any assistance programme by the time of the Christchurch earthquakes.  The planting of the seed was probably useful, but the response about compost toilets happened organically from the initial actions of a few people.  Hindsight is a marvellous thing, and in this case it suggests that what happened was actually a very good approach.  It was one of small steps regulated by feedback from people and communities in Christchurch.  Our main criterion for action was community requests from the people directly affected.  The interest and momentum thus grew slowly, but surely, as people and communities became more open to the idea and more aware of the practicality of the compost toilet option.  It was not forced, and there was no imposing of a solution.

We were willing and demonstrated what we were promoting in a practical hands-on way.  We had the experience of composting and compost toilets, and we showed people how they could do it themselves.  Making it simple, while keeping it hygienic and without contamination through the fully contained method.  Then people in the affected communities could take it on themselves and spread the word through their own networks.

What was clear to us, though, was the serious environmental impacts and potential health issues arising from the earthquakes and the extensive damage that they caused to the city sewer system.  There also seemed to be little emergency preparedness, either in communities or by authorities, around one of our most basic ‘calls of nature’.  There really was not a well thought out plan in advance.  The extent of the damage, the difficulties of repair and the problem with providing temporary service, appear to have been very much under estimated.  Then there is the left hook after the right — another large earthquake just as the system is starting to become widely functional, which takes everyone back to square one to repeat the whole experience all over again.  And then maybe another time?

Then consider that Christchurch had many advantages compared to other vulnerable cities and towns in New Zealand.  Except for the Port Hills, it is flat.  There are lots of alternative access routes to and around the city, and flat roads can be relatively easily repaired, at least as temporary repairs.  The sewer system has many pumps in the network, and main sewers could be tested and sewage pumped through them relatively quickly.  It is the detail of all the small connections that is the nightmare.

In a hilly city like Wellington, landslides and faulting ruptures would completely isolate most communities — from themselves and the outside world.  Where would you site all the street-side collection tanks for chemical toilets, and how could they possibly be serviced?  Digging holes in the back garden, for mini long drops, would not be so easy in many parts of Wellington, with it harder underlying base rock materials.

We believe that a simple compost toilet system should be part of everyone’s emergency kit.  It can be just a couple of buckets, a wheelie bin, and a few instructions.  Further, emergency management authorities should seriously investigate community based composting systems for use when communities are isolated and the centralised sewer system does not function.

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