Tohoku disaster prompts planning for emergency toilet management


When the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck, one of the biggest headaches for many areas became how to dispose of waste from toilets that were no longer in service due to power outages, disruptions of water supplies or broken mains.

The situation with toilets at the time of any natural disaster directly affects health and hygiene. Improving the situation, therefore, became an urgent task.

“You couldn’t use the sewer and the stench was horrible,” said Kazuma Morino, head of the ACT Institute of Disaster Medicine, whose nonprofit organization helped conduct a training course for medical professionals at Maebashi Red Cross Hospital in Gunma Prefecture last year.

Toilets were installed at evacuation centers after the disaster struck, but because there was no running water many became blocked with waste.

Many schools transported water in bucket brigades from pools, but because of clogged pipes or damage to sewage facilities, waste in many cases could not be disposed of properly.

According to a survey by Nagoya University, only 34 percent of local authorities were able to supply evacuation centers with temporary lavatories within three days of the start of the Tohoku disaster.

And even in places where emergency toilets were available, because many of the evacuation centers could not secure vacuum trucks, waste could not be pumped out.

Women and the elderly, especially, found these toilets hard to use since they were outside.

In fact, many people would refrain from drinking water to avoid using the emergency toilets, which would result in various health issues related to dehydration.

“The situation with the toilets at sites wasn’t that much different to the situation at the time of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake,” said an official from Hyogo Prefecture, which drew up guidelines for handling toilets at evacuation centers in 2014.

“We considered safety aspects and installing emergency toilets in prominent places.”

Now, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry is making full preparations to provide so-called manhole toilets, in which manholes can be converted into toilets. Special partitions will be provided to screen users.

These devices were well-received in disaster-hit areas such as Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, because they produce no bad odors and seem much like ordinary toilets for users.

The ministry is expected to release a guide for their use within fiscal 2015.

At the end of last year, 33 participants gathered in Tokyo for a seminar sponsored by research center Japan Toilet Labo to work on a plan for emergency toilets in an initial disaster response.

Toshiyuki Kasuga, 70, head of a neighborhood association from the Kanagawa District in Yokohama, attended the two-day program and said, “We want this to be reflected in plans for evacuation centers.”

More than 300 people have attended the seminars so far, and Japan Toilet Labo has also begun work to certify emergency toilet advisers.

Atsushi Kato, the research center’s representative director, said the issue can be addressed through cooperation.

“People find it difficult to talk about the problem of body waste, and that’s one reason this issue hasn’t been tackled in a serious manner. Now that the Japanese government has started to make efforts, citizens, local governments and companies need to get on board,” Kato said.

Japan Toilet Labo has suggested various methods to prepare for natural disasters when flushing toilets might be out of service.

Among these is the suggestion that people carry portable toilets in the form of special plastic bags in case a disaster strikes.

The bags, it said, fold up and fit in a pocket and can easily be attached to a Western-style toilet to collect body waste. Sold cheaply, once they have been used, the bags can be thrown out with combustibles much in the same way as disposable diapers.

Ideally, people should prepare portable toilets in their homes for at least seven days, the research center said. Toilet paper and diapers are also indispensable.

If an earthquake strikes, home toilets should not be used until damage to ceilings and light fixtures can be assessed as well as the conditions for electricity and water supply and drainage.

Water from bathtubs can be poured into toilets that flush even though there might be a power outage or a suspension of water supply.

But toilet paper should not be flushed and instead collected in garbage cans that have lids and disposed of separately.

In cases when toilets will not flush, portable toilets should be used. People should ask their local governments about the methods of waste disposal.

At evacuation centers, people should be considerate when using toilets. Most emergency toilets are outdoors, so there should be sufficient lighting at night and wet wipes made available. It is also important that women and children carry crime-prevention buzzers when they use outdoor toilets, the research center said.

People in charge of managing evacuation centers should discuss toilet issues on a regular basis and make checklists.

For example, consideration should be given to separate toilets for men and women and spaces should be provided for people with colostomies or who might require diaper changing.