‘Night soil’: Sanitation in Manila early 1900s
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - August 21, 2019 - 12:00am

Garbage, flooding, and unsanitary ways have plagued Manila since the Spanish and American times. Litter was left in streets, vacant lots, and creeks. Denizens spat, urinated, and defecated in public. Sewers were untended. Floods brought insects and disease. Settlements were congested. Sad, for Manila among the Philippines’ 82 cities has character, from combinations of old and new, sea and river, parks and edifices.

All this was contained in the 1903 Philippine Commission report to the US government. Stored in the National Archives, the transcript is also posted online. Present-day city planners, Metro Manila authorities, and Manila Bay rehabilitators would do well to study it. More so since they face today problems that were identified as far back as 120 years ago. Those included threats of epidemics like cholera and bubonic plague, trash disposal, sewerage, cemeteries, and water supply. 

In his book “Stories Rarely Told, Volume I” (New Day Publishers, 2013), historian Dr. Augusto de Viana condenses the Commission report. From the chapter “Night Soil and Other Unmentionables” can be gleaned that sanitation is a mix of political will, people’s habit, and technology. Excerpts from Prof. de Viana:

“Night soil is another term for human stool. There were several disposal methods. One was the use of traps connected to private drains emptying to esteros onto Manila Bay. Some traps connected to cesspools or ‘pozo negro’. Those were considered obsolete and unsanitary.

“Another system of disposing night soil was through open vaults built of solid masonry called ‘depositos’, emptied from time to time. Some vaults were dug in the ground, sans masonry. Early toilets, the ‘casitas’, were built over earth pits.

“The most primitive ways were extremely unsanitary. In the barrel-and-bucket system, waste fall into barrels then collected by buckets. In ‘casitas’ without pits, waste drop to the ground to be removed by hogs or desiccation. Removal was by means of night vessels in which the contents were scattered around the premises. The Board of Health closed down many of those toilets because a menace to public health.

“Locations of vaults were sometimes too close to wells, sources of drinking water that leachate could contaminate. Unsanitary methods were prohibited due to propagation of flies. Hogs were prohibited from roaming to prevent eating wastes, which causes the spread of trichinosis.

“Until the early 20th century some of the best houses in Manila were provided with a toilet seat in the second story or outside the house, and the deposit was allowed to drop in the yard below where it was finally scraped and carried away. ‘Pozo negros’ were emptied by excavators and the contents dumped in the sea. Stench permeated from stone walls of ‘depositos’ into the finest residences of the city.

“Sewers. – Manila’s early sewers were designed to make use of tides in flushing out and carrying away sewage. Sewers existed in the districts of Intramuros, Binondo, San Nicolas, and Santa Cruz. The main sewers were built of stone masonry with flat bottoms, vertical sides, and arched tops. They were intended to run clean at low tide. Since the sewers had flat bottoms, the area where sewerage spreads reduces the velocity of flow to the sea. It was believed that the larger the sewer, the better. But smaller sewers with rounded bottoms led to the invention of the egg-shaped sewer, adopted by sanitary engineers.

“Subsurface drains consisted of narrow stone gutters built at the edge of the pavement, covered with ordinary stone put together. In many sections, surface water accumulated especially during the rainy season. As a result, the sides of the streets and eventually the streets themselves became pools of stagnant water. It was envisioned that pumping stations would have to be provided for adequate drainage.

“Garbage disposal. – The city’s wastes were collected in garbage cans, placed in front of each house and contents removed by carts. The garbage was then loaded on a barge and taken out to sea and dumped. This method, environmentally destructive, was not carried out strictly especially in the districts where ‘nipa’ houses abounded. In those areas where houses were crowded together, there were no streets and garbage was strewn about. Those were breeding grounds for rats, flies, and germs. It was necessary to burn down the entire colony at Manila’s Parola (light house) area. That was to prevent the spread of diseases, especially the cholera epidemic of 1903 in which perished General Aguinaldo’s former cabinet president and top adviser Apolinario Mabini. The inhabitants were relocated to San Nicolas.

“Esteros. – Manila’s esteros, as well as their branches, were dirty and foul-smelling. They served as waterways, sewers, open drains, and irrigation ditches. Very few of those were properly dredged. The sewers of private houses emptied into esteros, gushing night soil from the nearby nipa houses. The authorities planned to dredge the esteros so the low tide could flush out the wastes to the sea.”

(More on Friday)

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The painting exhibit “Dede Land” is creating nipple effects in the Metro Manila art scene. Bandleader DeDennis Garcia of the legendary Hotdog focuses his brush and breaststrokes on his favorite imagined female body part. Till Aug. 30 at Art Center, 4th floor, SM Megamall, EDSA, Mandaluyong.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives: www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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