By Catriona Mitchell


On Friday morning in Ubud, Agung Siaga held a detailed 2-hour information session for those keen to understand and assist with one of the most pressing issues affecting Bali’s thousands of evacuees: toilets at the evacuation camps.


The ‘how to’ session was facilitated by Petra Schneider of IDEP, along with a Mount Agung Relief adviser  (I’ll refer to him for the purposes of this article as MARA), a specialist in livelihoods and agriculture who has had previous experience with emergency relief, including in Darfur.


The talk focused largely on the toilets that have been constructed at Les, located in the Bululeng regency, as a kind of case study: 20 toilets were recently installed there, taking a team of eight people around a week to complete the task. (When this is repeated the process will be much faster, as the first-time volunteers have now had this hands-on experience.)


Les is one of Bali’s official government camps, where an estimated 2000 people are registered, all residing in tents. 30 toilets are now providing for the community; when MARA and team first arrived, there were only five.


The military commander at Les was very particular about the placing of the toilets, apparently, for reasons of cultural sensitivity, and he absolutely didn’t want an ugly toilet at the entrance to the camp. MARA promised that they’d make it so beautiful, no one would be able to complain.


“Cleanliness is the source of health,” says the message painted on the Les toilet wall, in Balinese.


Building toilets, we were told, requires skill. A host of decisions has to be made along the way, taking into consideration not only religious and cultural sensitivities but many pragmatic considerations as well – some obvious, some less so.


The ensuing two hours of instruction demonstrated this. The session covered issues such as:


  • How to assess the level of urgency at a camp. What is the level of risk? What is the number of people at the camp, and how are they currently defecating?
  • How to identify if toilets are needed, and if so, how many (for instance, if the population is small and there is access to fields, it might be wiser to concentrate on a different area. There are evacuees in more than 300 locations currently, and with resources being limited,  this kind of discernment is vital);
  • Site selection once the location is decided upon: in Bali, the placement in relation to Gunung Agung is all-important, as is the level of the site, which mustn’t be higher than where people sleep;
  • The slope of the land: the toilets must not be placed upstream from a water source where they’d risk leaking into the water table, and must not be closer than 100 metres to a well or river;
  • The site must be easily accessible via a road or path, so that trucks can easily enter to bring water and provide necessary sewage suction;
  • The toilets must also not be more than 50 metres from the main living area, for easy proximity and to prevent danger or discomfort to those using toilets by night.



How the toilets are built:


The methods suggested for building the emergency toilets were simple yet ingenious. Here are the stages.


  • A hole is dug 1.5 metres down into the ground. This is done manually (unless excavation equipment is available.)


  • 3 large concrete rings of 50cm each in height are stacked on top of one another.
  • The top ring is then covered with a metal grate and a concrete slab; a hole is left for the toilet unit to be placed over, plus two smaller holes must be left – one to accommodate a tube for the suction machine, and the other, smaller one to allow gases to escape into the atmosphere.




  • The ground is scattered with gravel to prevent mud forming around the toilet.
  • A wooden structure is then erected around the toilet unit, to support the walls.


  • Walls are constructed with zinc sheeting.


  • And as a final flourish, a toilet brush is added into each unit so that each user can keep the toilet as clean as s/he found it.


What can go wrong:


Lots of things can go wrong in building effective toilets, we were told, and it’s best to know about the pitfalls in advance. This was one of the most instructive parts of the morning: the discussion of what mistakes can easily be made, and how they can be avoided.


MARA explained, for example, that the toilets have to be safe (ie the hole in the ground properly covered over so there’s no risk of people falling through); properly ventilated so the smell isn’t overwhelming; they must not leak; must be durable and last at least 6 months; and offer privacy. He showed us some pictures of toilet blocks that might have been rapidly constructed here in recent days by well-intentioned organisations, but are either dangerous to use, afford zero privacy, or weren’t built to last beyond a few days.


In one example, a huge trench was barely covered over with bamboo strips: treading upon them looked precarious in the extreme. In another, the walls were made with tarpaulin, not zinc sheeting, and would disintegrate within days.


“There’s a reason no one uses this toilet,” said MARA, pointing out that the flooring here wasn’t solid enough to be safe to walk on: there was danger of falling through.


The cleanliness of toilets is a major consideration too. In Les, this key issue has been addressed by keeping the toilets locked; a key is kept inside each of the tents, each of which accommodates an extended family. Any misuse can then be dealt with the family directly– maintenance is therefore easier to facilitate.





So what’s the cost?


Each toilet unit costs an estimated 3 million Rupiah to construct, including all materials and paying local tukangs for some of the specialty work (creating the metal grate with special tools, and the laying the concrete slab.)


How you can help:


If you’d like to volunteer, and to see regular updates about Agung Siaga’s activities, see the Facebook page here.


NB It’s illegal for foreigners without work permits to volunteer here in Bali. The most effective formula is for foreign visitors to donate; and Indonesians to implement.


If you’d like to donate to this all-important cause, the best way is via Kopernik (working in partnership with Agung Siaga) where much of the Mount Agung Relief effort is being centralised.


 You can contribute online at


Bank account details are as follows:


Bank: Bank Mandiri

Branch: KCP Ubud 14510

Account Name: Yayasan Kopernik

Account No: 145-00-1804889-8



Photos courtesy of Agung Siaga.