The true cost of water?
As we left behind the water crisis in Cape Town, it was with a sigh of relief. Phew. We have done our time conserving water, getting down to our allotted 50L per person per day. Which is not much water. Our landlord told us that other tenants were getting down to 35L per person per day. (For perspective, 50L is less than one sixth of what the average American uses.) You need to go out of your way to conserve water to this level. But, we did it.
The place where we could have done better was in the showers. We were limited by the type of plumbing in our rental unit, as the water was delivered by separate hot and cold taps. It took time to get the flow temperature mixed properly as to not be too cold or scalding hot. Once that was achieved and you rinsed for 30 seconds, it had to be turned off for soaping. Then the whole mixing of hot and cold had to be repeated. Luckily the shower head was low flow, so the rate at which we made these adjustments to temperature was not so great. And we collected all that shower water for flushing of toilets.
Once we left, we assumed that we would use water freely and not think twice about it. We even joked about taking long showers again. But, we have been changed by the whole experience. At least our feelings about water flowing from the tap are different from before our Cape Town visit. I am astonished when I step into a shower and the rate of water coming out feels like a fire hose. No wonder the little European water tank is depleted after one shower. Not only is it an inconvenience to wait for the hot water tank to reheat but it is a needless waste of water and energy.
Then we arrived at a rental which had been sitting empty for some time. One of the 2 bathrooms had a horrible smell coming from the sewer. There were plugs over every downspout, but the odour persisted. The owner told us that because the unit had not been used recently, the pipes had dried out and we needed to run the water on all 3 bathroom appliances for about 10 minutes to moisten the pipes properly. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was knowingly wasting a ridiculous amount of water to take care of a plumbing issue.
At that point, the world made no sense to me. I realize that a shortage of water in South Africa is not going to be solved by saving water in Spain, but somehow the attitudes towards water need to change, globally. We all need to think about the fresh water that flows freely from most of the taps, differently. Water is a natural resource which is taken from the ground and not necessarily replaced at the same rate it is used at. We cannot continue to hide from this accounting and assume that our civic tax rate is covering all the costs.
The World Economic Forum recently posted an article called, Cape Town’s Crisis Shows Us The Real Cost Of Water. The article highlights a bigger problem connected to the shortage of fresh water – food. The amount of water consumed and wasted in agriculture is significant. Evidently, in South Africa, less than 60% of the water is correctly placed in the root systems of plants. With half of the fresh water being used for irrigation, that is a significant waste. But, as humans we need food and fresh water to survive. It is not like agriculture is an activity we can stop doing, in order to conserve water.
What the Cape Town situation has shown is, there are only so many ways that personal household use can reduce the overall consumption of fresh water. Particularly in a case of drought, where the reliance on rain to refill reservoirs, as it always has before, is flawed thinking. Industry, namely agriculture needs to play a role in conservation. The storage of water in traditional holding areas needs to redesigned. The desalination systems, where they are feasible to be installed, must be brought online. All municipalities need to start planning. This fresh water issue is not limited to Cape Town. A recent article from National Geographic points out other municipal water systems under stress.
Who is going to pay for all this? I suppose that gets us back to accounting. Because the days of taking water from the ground as a free resource appear to be at an end. As our global population continues to grow, in many places, the reserves underground are being depleted at a faster rate than they can be replenished. This is an area where our politicians need to show leadership. This is what we pay taxes for, in my opinion. I would like to see my government take a long view and start working now, for a future which secures our basic human needs. We want industry to provide a new smart phone model each year, but we need fresh water everyday. Government should be the responsible mediator in keeping the proper balance between what we want and what we need.
Even in the world’s Northern most rain forest, Vancouver – there are problems with water. Every summer we are put on watering bans as the reservoirs dip down. As the summers are predicted to become longer and hotter, steps should be taken to secure the year round fresh water supply. When you live through the deluge of the winter, it does seem a shame not be doing a better job of collecting more fresh water for summer use.
In fact, it feels like we are forgetting the basics of human survival in a country like Canada – plan ahead! Traditionally, that has meant putting away food and fuel to survive the cold winters. News alert, that also means having enough fresh water for the summer!
I’m not going to pretend any of this is easy or that I have the solutions. Clearly the problems are far more complex than I am able to convey here. But I think the biggest hurdle is the political will to face the issues. These are not sexy topics. Who wouldn’t rather go to a car or boat show and see what industry is turning out next? It feels like, as a society, not enough of us are keeping our elected politicians working on the things which matter most.
I suppose my travels are making me aware of far more than the tourist attractions. Travel has had the power to help me understand my home country and my future in a totally different way. By living in all these different places and getting a glimpse into the everyday life of a variety of lifestyles, I have a far greater appreciation for what I desire back home. I feel a need to live more purposefully. Examine my surroundings and habits with more care. Practice the appropriate amount of gratitude for the amazing life I have, filled with opportunity.
Now to put on my creative hat and find some water saving solutions for our life back home! By living in a drought, we are far more curious about our water consumption and very open to the idea of conserving it. So here are some thoughts and resources:
- I think we already have a water saving laundry washing machine. It is energy efficient, I know for sure. Now I am curious how many litres it uses for every load. The challenge will be to fill each load and reduce how many we do each week. Same idea with our dishwasher, less loads filled to capacity.
- For under $20, we can get a waterpebble shower timer. Just like the short showers in Cape Town, we have proven we are capable of using less water. Now to make that a new habit. I draw the line at reusing that soapy, yucky grey water for flushing toilets. There needs to be a grey water filter system invented before that makes sense to me.
- A shower control valve is a brilliant idea! Lets you turn a switch behind the shower head so the water stays set to your temperature preference but the flow is reduced to a trickle. You can soap up – or ladies, shave your legs and easily have the full flow back on for rinsing. That is a quick and easy solution.
- Low flow faucets and shower heads. Yes, we need to check this because I am really astonished to think that 2 gallons per minute, (7.57L) is considered the reduction target. Which means most faucets deliver more than that.
- Water for the garden is tough one. We have 3 rain barrels on the side of the house and they get used up very quickly. I think we need a few more of them and we need to become educated about which plants need what volume of water per week. I have been liberally hand watering once the summer restrictions come into effect never knowing if it is enough, or too much. I do not let water visibly run off, but that does not mean the necessary water is being delivered to the roots of the plants I am targeting.
- Never let the water run from the tap needlessly. We have been guilty of letting it run until it is cool, (in the summer), in order to have a glass of water to drink. That is easily solved by having cold water in the fridge and making ice. Same goes for brushing teeth and washing stuff in the kitchen – get a plug for the sink!
- Much of Europe seems to use a 2 step toilet system where you can choose how much water to use after you have done your business. Not only that, neither setting uses as much as a normal toilet back home, so we need to switch to these toilets. In the mean time, a simple toilet tank bank can save up to 3L per flush.
Those are some creative ideas which may already be in use in many new homes. It does make sense to make a list of all the ways water is consumed and double check to see if that is the most efficient solution available today. Happy water saving!
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