Emergency Preparedness for Beginners
by Brett A. Fernau
Part 5 – Bugging in: Sanitation
You’ve made it home where you have water and food supplies to live on until the emergency situation is over and normal services resume. What if it takes more than just a few days before your city water system resumes operations? You know that your toilet depends upon the water you get from the city or county to operate, right? What if there is pressurized water available from the city, but that water is contaminated in some way? If you are in earthquake country, as I am, there is the possibility that both water lines and sewer lines will be broken under the street and will be mixing together. This means that the water pouring out of the tap or into the toilet will be unusable for drinking, bathing or cleaning. The only thing that water would be good for would be flushing the toilet. If you have no water at all coming into your house, the only water you will have to operate your toilet will be that water you will have stored for drinking. If you don’t know how long you will be without potable water (water that is safe to drink), you would be wise to conserve your supplies rather than flushing them down the toilet.
If you suspect that the water and sewer lines in your area are broken and that your water supply is contaminated by sewage, don’t open any taps in your house. Go outside and shut off the water at the curb. You should already know where that valve is and have a tool that will enable you to turn it off. If you don’t know the location of your water shut-off valve, find out now, before you go any further. By shutting off the water at the curb, you prevent the possibly of contaminated water from getting into your household system and thereby contaminating any water that may be left in your water lines. If you keep the water in your household system clean, you can use that water for drinking, including the water in the toilet tank (not the bowl, of course) and in the hot water heater (if you have one). Forgive the digression back into the subject of water, but this is important information for you to have.
If you still have pressurized, though contaminated, water available from the municipal water lines outside your house, you can allow that water back into your system after you’ve used or saved the clean water in the system by draining it into container for future use. Remember, though, that once you allow the contaminated city water into your household water system, you will only be able to use that water for flushing the toilet. Any other use of that water will require you to purify it by filtering, boiling or distilling. Even using the contaminated water for flushing your toilets would only be possible if the sewer system survived the earthquake or whatever other disaster you are dealing with. If that is not the case, if the sewer lines are collapsed or compromised to the point where they are not working, you will have to use other methods of waste disposal.
If you are to survive and stay healthy for any length of time over just a couple of day, you will need to figure out how do dispose of your waste. Waste includes, urine, feces, uneaten food, empty food and beverage containers, remains of dead animals and even humans, and whatever else there is that will attacked insects or harbor and breed disease. You will also need to figure out ways to keep yourself and your eating utensils clean. This all falls under the complicated, difficult and important topic of sanitation.
Since you have had the foresight to prepare for the disaster you are facing, you will have food to eat and water to drink. You will also need to be prepared to dispose of the waste products that will be created as a result of that eating and drinking. If you can’t flush it down the toilet, you will have to find another way of disposing of it. Certainly you will have to get the waste products out of your living space. With no sewer system to easily dispose of your bodily wastes, you will then have to bury them. You will want to bury them as far away from your living space as possible and in a location that will not contaminate any water source that you might have in your area. The easiest way to get your bodily wastes into the ground is the old fashion concept of the outhouse or pit latrine. This is simply a hole in the ground that you use as a toilet. You will need to devise some sort of cover and lid system for your latrine to keep the smell under control. There are also chemical toilets available, which would work for the short term. But you will still have the problem of disposing of the waste at some point. You can line a 5 gallon bucket with a plastic garbage bag and top it with a toilet seat; or you can line your toilet with a plastic bag. You will still have the problem of where to dispose of the waste.
As I said, waste disposal is a complicated problem. It must be handled immediately, though, or you will have the even bigger problems of disease, unbearable stench and uncontrollable insect infestations. Think this through, do your research and have a plan before the disaster strikes. I see a couple of problems that I don’t see solutions for yet. If you end up digging a latrine in your back yard and a couple of weeks later, the city services come back on line, what do you do with it at that point? Do you just fill it in and pretend it’s not there, or do you call someone in the sewage business and get their help in handling it. When civilization returns, your temporary potty may now be considered a toxic waste problem.
In addition to disposing of you waste materials, you will need to keep yourself and your eating utensils clean and as germ-free as possible. Keep your hands clean by washing them with potable water. Don’t put your fingers in your mouth or your eyes. They will be dirty. You will be dirty. In a grid-down emergency, the first thing you do is ration water, your drinking water. You are going to have to get used to being dirty and smelly until you get some sort of clean water system in place. You can keep yourself healthy by keeping your hands as clean as possible. Wash after using the latrine. Wash before eating. Keep your cooking and eating utensils clean. Stock up on some hand sanitizer and some baby wipes. You can keep yourself clean with those for a while. Keep your living and cooking areas clean. You will have to take sponge baths as you won’t have water for showers. You might have to settle for washing feet, crotch, armpits, face and hands if you water supplies are short.
As I said, think this through. Look at where you live. Is there someplace on the property where you could bury waste? Do you have a shovel to dig a pit? What kind of soil do you have? Will you need a pickaxe to dig into it? Sanitation and waste disposal may well be your biggest problem in a disaster. It must be solved and solved quickly, though, or you will quickly succumb to the diseases that result from untreated waste products.