Not getting caught short in emergency

While the recent national "Shake Out" earthquake drill and ongoing television advertisements remind people what to do when the ground shakes, less emphasis seems to be put on what to do in a disaster over the long term - and, specifically, how to manage sewage.

A group of five people from throughout the country are helping change this by holding workshops about how to create and manage an emergency compost toilet.

The group met at a permaculture hui in Raglan in April 2010 and quickly realised there was overlap between the self-reliance skills they were learning and emergency management.

The Permaculture Emergency Response Team was set up. Team member Lisa Johnston, who is based in Wanaka, said following the Christchurch earthquakes they quickly realised toileting was a major issue. Infrastructure was extensively damaged and flushing a toilet often meant flooding someone's garden with human waste.

A basic emergency compost toilet consists of a bucket each for urine and faeces.

Urine could be diluted and poured on to a garden, while the solid waste could be covered with material such as sawdust, leaves or soil and composted in a larger area, such as a wheelie bin, provided there was air, moisture and a balance of carbon and nitrogen.

Ms Johnston had held workshops in Wanaka and Hawea which were well attended. However, a planned Queenstown workshop was abandoned because of lack of interest.

Of the nearly two dozen people who attended the workshops, about 70% indicated they would like to operate compost toilets in everyday life, and "there was an opportunity for the council to get behind this", especially with current calls to cut down water use.

"We feel that these people should be supported and monitored in that endeavour because they are going to be the ones who know what to do when disaster strikes, and therefore they should be well trained and supported."

Ms Johnston said it was much easier to prepare before a disaster occurred than during an emergency.

Most of those at the workshops were interested in sustainable living, although Ms Johnston spent more than two weeks helping educate people about emergency compost toilets in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes.

Queenstown Lakes District Council solid waste manager Stefan Borowy said an emergency would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. A working sewerage system would likely be a priority but it would depend on the severity of other issues.