emergency toiletsStep 9. Emergency toilets

After a large earthquake, don't flush!

Even if the water is still running, it's likely the wastewater pipes will be broken. When you flush the toilet, your poos and wees may end up in your garden (or your neighbours' gardens)! 

The wastewater network (which takes away the water we pour down the sink and our poos and wees) is even more vulnerable than the drinking water network - its broken pipes would take even longer to find and fix, and there'd be more of them.

No running water = no flushing toilets

If the water stops coming out of your tap, then it will also stop filling up your toilet cistern. You may not be able to use your normal toilet for some time after a major earthquake, so you will need to think about what you can use for an emergency toilet.

Find out more

  • You can read the Post-Earthquake Emergency Sanitation Plan for the Wellington Region here
  • For an infographic on options for emergency toilets, including options for people with mobility impairments click here:
    Don't Flush! (pdf 276 KB)

Here are two types of simple emergency toilets that you can make:

1. Make a long-drop toilet

You will need:

  • Backyard or space on your property to dig a large hole
  • Tools to dig a hole, such as a spade  
  • Soil or other fill such as straw, sawdust or shredded newspaper 

How to make a long drop: 

Dig a hole up to one metre deep and 30 – 40 cm wide. Make sure the hole is away from any water source, above the groundwater table and far away from any vegetable gardens.

After each use, cover your poos and wees with soil or other mulch. Keep the hole covered after each time you use it, for hygiene and safety reasons. You can do this by placing a piece of board or heavy-duty cardboard over the hole, this will discourage pests or pets from getting into the toilet.

When your poos and wees get to 30cm below the surface - fill in the hole. Cover the hole with soil and dig yourself a new long–drop!

This hole can also be used to hold solid waste from a bucket toilet.

2. Make an emergency bucket toilet

You will need:  

  • Two sturdy 15 – 20-litre buckets with lids
  • Permanent marker pen 
  • Dry mulch such as sawdust, dry leaves, soil or shredded newspaper 
  • Water – 2 litres of water per person per day

How to make a bucket toilet:

Set your two buckets in your normal toilet, bathroom or laundry. With a permanent marker pen write "wees" on bucket 1 and "poos" on bucket 2. It is important that you try to keep your wees separate from your poos as it will help keep the smell down and make it safer. 

Bucket 1 (wees): 

Add 2-3 cms of water to the bottom of your clean and empty bucket. Use bucket 1 for wees. This bucket should be for wees only (add toilet paper to bucket 2). Once you have finished close the lid and wash your hands! 

At the end of each day, dilute your wee with additional water and pour it into a disused area of your garden or other green space.

Bucket 2 (poos): 

Create a nest at the bottom of your clean and empty bucket. Use bucket 2 for poos and toilet paper only. When you have finished doing your business, add a large cup or handful of dry mulch (sawdust, straw, dry leaves, soil or shredded newspaper) to cover your poo. Then close the lid and wash your hands! 

Try to keep the poo bucket as dry as possible. Sometimes it's hard to poo without wees coming out, but if you can keep them separate, then this will keep the smell down and make it safer to handle. Use the sawdust, straw or shredded newspaper to absorb any spills.

Bucket 2 will need to be emptied at least every three days. Empty into:

  • a hole in the ground, as per the long-drop toilet for advice on building a suitable hole; or
  • a large storage bin, such as a wheelie bin.

Keep bucket contents separate from other household waste and cover them with extra mulch, straw or soil.

Why separate poo and wee?

Keeping poo and wee separate reduces the smell. It is also safer, as wees contain far fewer germs than poo. By keeping wee and poo separate, you will find that your bucket toilet is easier to empty and more hygienic.

During a disaster, it is very important to minimise the spread of diseases. Human poo contains a lot of dangerous germs and so a hygienic system for your emergency toilet will help your household to avoid getting sick.

Making a toilet seat 

It’s easy to make a seat for your emergency toilet – you can simply cut a hole in a garden chair and place it over your bucket toilet or long–drop.

Toilet seats can also be unscrewed from existing toilets and attached to the chair. You can also build a frame with toilet seats to use more comfortably. Any frame should be strong enough to support users, easy to clean (painting or varnishing will help) and easy to open so buckets can be removed and emptied. Seats and frames can be used over both long-drops and bucket toilets.

Using an emergency toilet - Safe handling tips

  • After using the toilet wash your hands thoroughly using soap and water, or hand sanitiser. Dry your hands thoroughly.
  • If possible use gloves when emptying buckets, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly using soap and water, or hand sanitiser. Dry your hands thoroughly.
  • Rinse and clean the poo bucket after emptying
  • Disinfect with a dilute bleach solution if necessary
  • Make sure your emptying and cleaning your buckets regularly
  • Keep the toilet and waste material well separated from any food preparation areas
  • If someone does get sick (e.g. vomiting or diarrhoea), try and use another bucket. Take extra care when emptying the bucket and disinfect with a dilute bleach solution. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist.

Helping children use an emergency toilet

  • Keep the gap between the toilet seat and the bucket as small as possible, to reduce accidents. 
  • Ensure your usual toilet is sealed shut so it can’t be used.
  • For young children use symbols or paintings to help them learn which bucket is for poo and which bucket is for wee.

Period products, nappies and wet wipes

Most tampons, applicators, pads, nappies and wet wipes aren't biodegradable (or won't break down for many, many years). Don't put any of these products in your long drop or bucket toilets! Please pop these in the rubbish. 

Wastewater isn't just about toilets

You'll also need to think about how you would dispose of water used for cooking and hygiene. Water from cooking can be tipped into gardens, but keep the water used for washing clothes or yourself away from vegetable gardens. 

Trial of emergency compost toilets

In 2012, a trial of emergency compost toilets was conducted by WREMO.

Read the report at wremo.nz to find out more

Go to Step 10: Meet your neighbours

Meet your neighbours imageMost people are rescued by those who are there at the time. Your neighbours are your first source of support and it's important to get to know them now rather than later.

In an emergency, knowing a few people on your street will help to make sure everyone is looked after and share resources and skills to help each other. 

Go to Step 10 to read about how to connect with your neighbours


Attend a household earthquake planning sessionFind out more at a Household Earthquake Planning session

Attend a free one-hour session to get tips on how you, your household and whānau can stay safe and get through.

The session covers:

  • What could happen in your area in an earthquake
  • How to stay safe
  • Key points for your emergency plan
  • Essential emergency supplies
  • How neighbours can help each other

Attend a Household Earthquake Planning Session