Saturday, 21 November 2009

Sanitation in emergency camps

Dominique Porteaud, UNHCR’s senior water and sanitation officer, was interviewed on World Toilet Day (19 November) about his work (interview here). When asked what happens if no latrines are installed, he replied:

A good example is Goma in 1994 [see here], when a million people crossed the border and, I think, about 50,000 people died because there was no proper sanitation and water supply. One of the major problems in Goma was that it was impossible to dig latrines because the [volcanic rock] ground was so hard and all the waste was spread around and contaminated the water that people were drinking. As a result, there was cholera everywhere.

So, what can you do if you can’t dig pits? It has to be an above-ground solution, such as eThekwini latrines − urine-diverting alternating twin-vault ventilated improved vault latrines (UD-VIVs, for short). But you don’t actually need twin vaults in emergency camps − a single-vault UD-VIV is fine; and in the initial aftermath of an emergency you can do without vent pipes. Urine diversion is needed to keep the vault contents as dry as possible and, of course, it can be used to fertilize food crops. So, what’s needed is a urine-diverting single-vault latrine, but the vault has to be pretty big. Many years ago Oxfam developed a big butyl-rubber septic tank to receive both faeces and urine from a multi-compartment latrine block (designed specifically for emergencies − the packing case became the superstructure), so something like this is what’s needed, but with each compartment discharging directly into the butyl-rubber tank (no flush water) and with urine diversion into a second butyl-rubber tank. Anyway, it’s worth thinking about.