101 ways with water

Today is the last day of National Water Week. Sorry I didn’t alert you to this fact earlier, but I have had to compete with ActionMan’s homework for computer access recently and his assignments on flatback turtles, postmodernism and medieval monks won out. But I’d been planning a post on water for some time and even wrote the first draft sometime back in June or July. So National Water Week, a special week to draw attention to water conservation strategies, seems an appropriate time to publish.

In 2007, between 70% and 90% of my home state of New South Wales was in continuing drought. And even though the torrential rains this year have Sydney looking greener than ever, the percentage of NSW in drought is still 71.6% according to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Green pages on Wednesday. A quick internet search failed to come up with a confirmation of this exact figure, but the Bureau of Meteorology recently released a statement on the Australia-wide drought, which has been going on now for eight years.

Australia has always been dry, a fact which people who only know the country from maps may fail to appreciate. You might wonder why there are so few people in such a vast space – it’s because there’s not enough water. I’m not going into all the details of why. Deserts, El Nino, Southern Oscillations, inappropiate farming practices and climate change all play a role, and you can easily research it if you want to. Suffice it to say, drought is part of the natural cycle here and as a nation we have to figure out better ways of living with it, not exacerbating it.

Given this state of affairs, you can see why water occupies a lot of attention in Australia. Newcomers to the country or city-dwellers without country connections may be puzzled by our obsession with the weather, but as well as being a hand-me-down conversation starter from British ancestors, discussions about rainfall and sunshine reflect our concern about our water supply.

I mention country connections because it’s easy if you live in the city to be ignorant of the true state of affairs – it’s mostly green and lush along the coastal strip. Only when Sydney’s main dam dropped to below 40% capacity a few years ago did people really start to ‘get it’. But if you have a connection with the inland you more easily understand what the issues are. I grew up bathing in three inches of water pumped from the river which bordered our farm and drinking rainwater collected from our roof. Dripping taps or wasting water were not tolerated. Even if we’d had access to a town water supply, it would have been pumped from the same river. Skimpy baths were not the worst of it, however. Two of my cousins went bankrupt in the 1980s drought, among the many who lost farms and businesses in that decade, and again now as the drought bites again.

Even though I’ve had this experience, I admit to having become more wasteful of water since living in the city where it flows without end from the tap and water saving is only now becoming part of the culture. But I do pay attention to what’s going on, and during our trip around the world this year I was been thinking a lot about water. We visited Los Angeles, a city that should be desert, where water is piped in from the Colorado River and wasted with a profligacy that is truly scary. Watering public lawns with sprinklers in the middle of a hot summer day? Mad. And then we were in Ghana, where water is plentiful but so poorly managed that it carries disease, causes heavy erosion, and most people only have limited or difficult access to it. Our last stop was South Africa, a land as dry as Australia and also in drought. It was weird, when we arrived, to no longer be surrounded by endless greenery. The rest of this post though, will mostly be about Ghana.

Early this year Ross Gittens, a Sydney Morning Herald economics journalist, wrote an op ed in which he suggested that a good way to save water would be to shower less often, i.e. not daily (and certainly not twice daily). At the time, this long hot shower addict thought that he was only suggesting this to justify his own lack of personal hygiene. (And yes, Ross, showers can be both pick-me-ups and therapeutic). However I also had to admit to myself, through gritted teeth, that he had a point. I hope no-one at the Sydney Water took it seriously, I’d hate to see a shower roster included in the water restrictions along with the garden watering roster and the no hosing of concrete. But hey, I have a better suggestion: the bucket shower.

I realise this will probably only work for most people in the summer months, and I haven’t been able to face doing it myself since we got back to Australia, but with a bucket you can wash thoroughly twice a day and still use less water than your average four minute shower.

One morning in Ghana I washed and conditioned my hair, soaped up all over and rinsed, washed my underwear, rinsed out the sponge, still had a litre to spare at the bottom of the bucket, and felt clean, cool, refreshed and also extremely smug. There is something deeply satisfying about being able to accomplsh so much with so little. I didn’t manage to repeat this parsimonious feat every day, but I often had enough water left in the bucket to tip into the toilet cistern. If I can manage to repeat this in a Sydney summer I will be feeling very smug indeed.

Owaruku pouring water

Owaruku pouring water

In Ghana, I had no other choice but to bucket shower. DadaK’s house had 3 showers and 3 flush toilets but it was not connected to piped water. The entire suburb was not connected. Asuoyeboah is a new development and the government has not put in the pipes. DadaK thought it might never happen, because many of the people who live there (mostly in houses built by expatriate relatives) have put in bore holes and pumps, and if enough people do it the government won’t bother. Our water came from a neighbour’s bore. Every morning Afia Serwaa, Marta, Yaa Ketwaa and sometimes Owaruku would collect the water the old fashioned way (see pic at right). It’s stored in basins, buckets and barrels beside the bathrooms and in the hall near the outdoor kitchen.

It looks clean enough, and I was told that Ghana’s ground water supply is fairly safe, but if the bore’s supply is at all connected to the stream at the bottom of the valley I’d be most concerned about its quality. All the storm water rushes down there, carrying with it plastic bags, empty medicine blister packs, dead lizards, you name it. Plus I wonder how closely the pit toilets in people’s backyards might be connected to the groundwater, in such an urban environment. I didn’t trust it and DadaK said any of the Australian family who drank it got diarrhoea, so he wouldn’t allow the children to drink it. Everyone else does though. Every night Yaa Ketewa would filter it through a sponge into bottles for the family and into plastic bags to sell chilled or as ice.

We drank filtered water that we bought in bulk in 500 ml plastic bags. Five pesewas each from the ubiquitous water sellers, or one cedi for about 15 bags at the corner store. (ActionMan was at one time considering exporting these water bags to Australia to solve our water crisis. He wanted to get in early before the anticipated global water wars settle on tropical, moist Ghana as their first target.)

DadaK imported a water cooler from Australia and after I and my bank account arrived, we purchased twenty litre bottles of filtered water and used that instead of the bags most of the time. This was DadaK doing his bit for the environment. Like me, he was appalled at the amount of waste plastic littering the streets and choking drains and waterways. My bit for the environment (apart from funding the water bottles) was to buy a laptop bag made out of recycled plastic water bags.  You too can find out more about recycled bags online at Trashy Bags, although I suspect mine, which is unlabelled, may have been made by their competitors. Who cares, it gets some plastic off the streets.

I was planning to buy the family a rainwater tank, but on looking into it, it didn’t seem such a great idea, although I let go of it with great reluctance. To buy one big enough was more than I could afford, it would be of no use during the dry season, dust off the roof contaimantes the supply at the beginning of the rainy season and DadaK thought it unnecessary. He wants to put a bore in instead, when he has the money, so I may help with that, in spite of my misgivings about the quality. It is his house, after all. He wasn’t concerned at the amount of work the girls put into carrying water, he’s done it as a youth, it’s “nothing” … ahem, your sexism is showing my dear … My position was that they worked so hard all day, a water tank would relieve them of one task, at least.

It was all a bit frustrating, especially because the house had been built in such a way that rainwater couldn’t be collected easily. The downpipes only opened just above ground level, so there wasn’t space to put permanent barrels underneath them. But when it rained – and we were there in the rainy season, so that was often – all household members between the ages of 23 and 14 (plus me and excluding ActionMan) leaped into action to collect the rainwater. One would stand in the downpour and scoop it from a basin underneath the downpipe into buckets which the rest of us would empty into the assorted barrels in the house. This was the best workout I got in Ghana. The family laughed at me for doing it, but I wanted to contribute in some non-financial way both to household labour and to replenishing the water we used. No-one stopped me. I think they would have liked a rainwater tank.

I imagine it’s clear by now why, though surrounded by water, we were having bucket showers, urinated in the shower cubicles, and only the most fastidious and privileged among us used the flush toilets. The other reason we were asked to urinate in the shower (I think the family all did it behind the house) was that the contents of the toilets went into a huge septic tank in the back yard and DadaK didn’t want to have to pay extra to have it emptied more frequently. The less that went into it, the better. Water from the showers on the other hand, just drains out into the roadside gutters to join the stormwater mentioned above, thereby becoming a public, not a personal waste disposal problem. Under the circumstances, who can blame people for shifting the responsibility? What else can you do, without a public sewerage system?

Anyway, it occurs to me that weeing in the shower isn’t such a bad idea for drought stricken Australia – you could flush it down the drain with a cup of the water you collected while waiting for your daily shower to heat up and save, save, save. Take note, Ross Gittens.

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