Flush with answers: WWF offers Day Zero toilet training
What to do when you can’t flush the loo? That’s the question tackled by WWF SA in this week’s edition of its Wednesday Water Files‚ aimed at helping Capetonians to prepare for Day Zero.
Here are its answers to some frequently asked questions.
Q: After Day Zero will I still be able to flush my toilet with rain water/greywater?
A: Yes‚ as long as the sewage systems are still functional. It would be wise to use as little of your daily allocation of drinking water for flushing – so it is worth considering alternative dry options.
Q: Why can’t I flush with sea water?
A: This is not an option. Sea-water flushing will increase salt in the waste-water treatment plants‚ and if salinity levels get too high the microbes which treat the sewerage can’t survive and the treatment plants will stop working. Then we would end up with an even bigger problem as our waste-water plants would become inoperable.
The same principle applies to septic tank systems which rely on microbes to decompose the sewerage.
Suburbs on the Atlantic seaboard (Green Point‚ Sea Point‚ Camps Bay to Hout Bay) discharge sewerage out to sea via pipelines; under emergency conditions you can flush with sea water in these areas.
Q: Will the sewage systems still work after Day Zero?
A: The City of Cape Town says yes. It intends to flush the system to keep sewerage moving.
City engineers are working to ensure the system continues to function in order to protect the health of the public as well as the infrastructure. Our sewerage system has not worked under these conditions before and we should expect the unexpected – treatment plants or sewerage pipes could fail and we should all be ready to make contingency plans.
Q: What is more dangerous‚ urine or faeces?
A: Urine is essentially sterile‚ which means it is free of bacteria. If you can urinate on soil in your (private) garden it will be absorbed and not present health problems providing the volumes aren’t too high. Spread it around so it doesn’t get concentrated and smell.
In contrast‚ faeces present a health hazard as they contain disease-carrying bacteria and microbes. It is critical that faeces are dealt with safely and do not come into contact with people or animals such as dogs.
Urine is essentially sterile‚ which means it is free of bacteria. If you can urinate on soil in your (private) garden it will be absorbed and not present health problems providing the volumes aren’t too high. Spread it around so it doesn’t get concentrated and smell
Open defecation is a hazard‚ and globally there are many initiatives trying to eradicate this practice to ensure dignity and health.
Our waterborne sanitation system has been designed to safely remove poo and pee and ensure we don’t come into contact with it. Good sanitation‚ combined with hand-washing‚ dramatically reduces the risk of disease.
Q: What is the simplest solution for Day Zero?
A: Many people are considering dry sanitation‚ and the easiest option is a dry compost toilet. This is a bucket housed in a box to support your weight with a toilet seat of your choice and organic material to cover the poo. The cover material can be sawdust or decomposed compost (lots of good bugs).
If you use a dry compost system it’s important to keep your face well clear when handling the buckets and use a good pair of kitchen gloves that you can clean and re-use especially for the task.
After the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand in 2011 an organisation called Relieve co-ordinated an effort to provide information and support for people who were doing without their usual sewerage systems.
Q: How does a dry toilet work?
A: The ideal is to separate the pee and the poo as much as possible‚ because if the mixture is too wet it will hamper decomposition. The aim is to keep the poo bucket‚ which is the highest risk‚ from filling up too quickly.
One person produces about 1 to 1½ litres of urine a day‚ which can be disposed of in a green space or in your compost heap. For people in high-rises‚ the urine can still go in the conventional toilet but dispose of the paper separately. There are products that mask the smell.
The poo has to be properly managed to avoid diseases and can be converted into “humanure” (compost) through a proper composting process. Ideally‚ this should be managed in a centralised system. Talk to your councillor as it is not clear if there are contingency plans for centralised composting.
Some composting toilets have urine diversion mechanisms and there are many websites with more information on how to construct your own compost loo and how to safely process the waste.
Q: Can a dry toilet be used in a flat without a garden?
A: Yes. Using a bucket system with cover material should prevent it from smelling. Separating out urine is even more important in this case. High-rises and high-density areas could collaborate to get bulk cover material and could even compost safely or arrange bulk collection of the material to get composted elsewhere.
Ideally‚ you should be talking to your body corporate now about making alternative sanitation systems available for Day Zero. This could range from sourcing an alternate supply of greywater to flush the toilets‚ installing a commercial dry toilet system or chemical toilets in the grounds of your building — and also advising people on how to minimise blockages by putting toilet paper in a separate bin.
Q: What are the features of a good compost toilet system at home?
A: The system should not be too wet because then it rots. If it’s too dry it doesn’t compost. One way to manage this is to pee in the bucket for morning ablutions and to try to keep the rest separate. It shouldn’t be soggy but rather have the consistency of good moist soil.
You should preferably use a 25-litre bucket with a lid as this is the easiest to carry‚ and won’t get too heavy.
Smell management is done with dry organic material such as sawdust (anything that is reasonably dry and high in carbon can be used‚ so you could also try garden clippings‚ compost or partially composted leaves and garden waste).
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Q: How do I know if a dry toilet is working properly?
A: A dry (bucket) toilet works properly if your material doesn’t leak out‚ if you can pick up the container comfortably‚ and if it can be closed. A composting toilet (which is bigger than a bucket) works well if it doesn’t smell. If it smells of ammonia‚ add more organic material. If it rots‚ there is too much liquid.
Q: What other alternatives are there?
A: Pit latrines‚or long drops‚ which are deep holes in the ground. They can be smelly and difficult to maintain depending on the geology of the soil. Pit latrines are also problematic in urban areas as they can contaminate ground water and pose health risks such as worms. It’s advisable to take deworming tablets every six months.
Commercial composting toilets: Another option is a commercial composting toilet system that uses the natural process of decomposition to break down human waste‚ yet is self-contained. A number of commercial self-contained dry toilets are available but they are not always suitable for small dwellings. Some of these toilets are already in use in public areas‚ such as on the top of Signal Hill in Cape Town and in CapeNature rest camps.
Chemical toilets: Chemical toilets are often used by caravanners or at music festivals. They will also need to be serviced‚ so be sure to establish whether that is feasible.