Learning from Earthquakes: First person reports

Toilet Inequality

March 17, 2011 by
Filed under EERI Team Field Blog, Social Impacts

It’s a stinky subject to write about, but there is toilet inequality in disaster response and recovery. Here in Christchurch, the sewerage system has been inoperable for varying periods of time depending upon the location you live. This has meant that many Cantaburians have been reliant on port-a-loos and other waste systems for the past three to four weeks.

There are differences in port-a-loos, I have learned. There is the deluxe version that can be found on the University Campus. These have flush systems, running water for hand washing and even a little mirror in the door. The next step down may be the regular port-a-loos that can be found on street corners throughout the eastern suburban neighborhoods. These are your common port-a-loos that you might find on a construction site. In addition, some people living in Christchurch have received chemical toilets – a box with a toilet seat on top of it that can be used by an individual household. Then there are others who seem to commune with nature in their own back yards. If they are capable, they dig a “longdrop box” and build a structure around the box (you can see pictures of these longdrop boxes online at www.ShowUsYourLongDrop.co.nz). Those who aren’t capable of strenuous digging, might dig a “shortdrop box” in their backyards. It’s the same idea as the longdrop, just not as deep into the ground.

Consider for a moment, issues of access and distribution of these various toilet facilities. One of our first conversations with a local Christchurch resident centered on this very issue. He told of a friend who has elderly parents who have lived for the past three weeks without a toilet. This elderly couple was unable to dig a drop box in their back yard; they are not mobile enough to get to the porta-loo down the street; and after multiple requests they have not yet received a chemical toilet for their own household. Our interviewee had a working sewer, was able bodied, and was contributing to the earthquake response through both professional and voluntary activities. At one point in our conversation he expressed some disappointment that he had no need to participate in the longdrop box activities around town. However, three weeks into the response, a chemical toilet was delivered to his front door.

In every disaster there are stories where people having great need go without resources for long periods of time. Why this is so, explained our Christchurch informant, might be that there is a lack of coordinated information to facilitate the transfer of resources to the right doorstep at the right time.


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