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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Water, water, everywhere?

So, it's official... we've run out of water. Not from the mains, thank God, but in the water butt and it's brought home to me a completely different level of awareness about an essential environmental matter - the distribution of water. The history of humanity is at least in one sense a history of water - civilisations rise when they can control water and use it for their purposes, particualrly for agriculture. Whenever consideration was ever made in history for a human settlement, the first consideration was whether or not there was access to a safe, healthy and regular supply of water. We take water utterly for granted. According to www.savetherain.info the average UK resident uses 150 litres of water a day, 30% of which is used on flushing toilets, about 20% of which is used for bathing or showering and about 14% of which is used in dishwashers (which, interestingly enough, are now more water-efficient than washing by hand).

We've run out of water for good reason. The sun has started to come out and we have more plants. Our rickety old white picket fence was taken down and replaced by a hedge that needs watering to help it grow. We've bought more plants and in order to keep Zafra away from the pond we've added to the garden large growing pots with more water-thirsty vegatables. I've noticed that all the plants had been looking a little weary but didn't realise it was just because I wasn't watering them enough - apparently in this sunlight and with this little rain (I geniunely don't remember the last time it rained properly in Bournemouth, even though we had moments of rain today), I should be watering the plants twice a day... and I was doing it once every two or three days! So with my new watering regime, with significantly more plants to water and with no rain to top up the water butt, it's easy to see why we ran out of water so quickly.

Indoor water usage statistics from the US
I'm aware that many people will water plants from the mains supply but I don't like to. If harvested properly, the average house could collect enough water to supply at least half of all their daily needs - not just watering plants, but showers, baths, washing up... the lot. So the first thing that I have to do is get more water butts. Then we have to get better about using our grey water. Grey water is water that has been used once but could be used again. For a long time, we've taken a large jug and filled it with shower water as the shower takes 10 seconds or so to heat up. Over a year, I can't imagine how much water that's saved us - it must be many thousands of litres. We're also careful with our black water - that's water that you don't want to use again. For example, in our house we follow the mantra of "If it's yellow, let it mellow - if it's brown, flush it down." We don't if guests are round - that might be weird for some people. But we do whenever possible. That's water-saving, at least from the mains.

Looking at www.waterfootprint.org really brings water usage into perspective. Most people are aware of the notion that everyone has a "carbon footprint" but now more people are considering an awareness of an individual "water footprint." What many people don't realise is that around 85% of our water usage comes from the consumption of agricultural products, particularly in feeding animals in preparation for turning them into meat - thankfully I've been a veggie for around a decade now.... one kilo of beef takes 15,500 litres of water. I'm also off the hook when it comes to coffee since I don't drink it - every cup of coffee takes 140 litres of water in production (tea, by the way (which I also don't drink) takes about 35 litres of water per cup). But then I run into trouble - a 125ml glass of wine takes 120 litres of water to create. One slice of bread takes 40 litres of water. One slice of bread! Not one loaf, but one single slice. We make our own bread at home and it only uses a tiny amount of water... here. But growing the flour takes a huge amount of water. I'm now slightly horrified to realise that every slice of bread takes 40 litres of water. But not as horrified as I might be to realise how much water is used to make the thing that I often put on bread - cheese! One kilo of cheese takes 5000 litres of water. I may not usually eat 1 kilo of cheese at a time, but I will eat a lot of cheese in time and will therefore be responsible for the usage of a lot of water. Rice is the same - every kilo of rice takes 3400 litres of water. It's not just food - every one sheet of A4 paper takes 10 litres of water to create and I use a lot of paper in my work.

Everything we do uses so much water and knowing all this really brings into perspective the need to be unbelievably careful with our water usage. So I'll have to take some steps...
Firstly, I really have to fix the dripping tap in the nursery. A dripping tap can waste 4 litres of water a day.
Secondly, we really should  reduce the amount of water used in every toilet flush - apparently a brick wrapped in a plastic bag does the trick (the plastic bag is essential otherwise the brick breaks down in the water and can damage the entire system).
Thirdly, I'm going to have to do more weeding. Weeds take water from the plants that we want to grow, meaning that more water is needed on the same bed. I never thought that being environmental would involve more weeding.
Fourthly, as I mentioned before, we're going to have to buy more water butts to catch all the water that falls on our roof. At the moment we have one water butt near the back, but there's definitely space for two or three more, including at least one at the front of the house.

If I'm honest, part of me would really like to live off the water grid. I'd like to really be responsible for my own water. I don't think it's practical right now but that doesn't mean that I can't work towards that. I think that I've become so dependent on water being provided without question that I haven't cared enough about harvesting the rain that pours on our property. In other words, because I live a life of relative luxury (relative in global terms) I haven't cared about basic steps for sustianable living. Maybe once I'm really dependent on rain water, the prayer that we add in the Amidah, the central prayer in our service, for rain to fall at the right time, will really resonate more strongly.


  1. Don't feel too guilty about the weeding - having plants rather than bare soil means not so much water evaporates - that's my excuse anyway! (when you do weed, if they've not got seeds, you can just lay them on the soil to wither and they act like a mulch!)

  2. Rabbi Neil, very interested in your analysis of water consumption in many of our homes. About 10 years ago, a friend and ex-colleague,  introduced me to  "the bucket"! He assiduously collected domestic water in the kitchen and the bathroom and recycled same in his garden and in the loo, which according to your stats represents by far the largest percentage of indoor water usage. I subsequently adopted this regime and collect washing-up water and shower water, there being at least three buckets in service. I flush the loo only on "brown" occasions and thereby make better use of avaiable water,  and save money to boot. To maximise the benefit of water collection, may I suggest investing in a bath/shower plug, and using a  jug to bail out shower water; the same practice
     applies to kitchen waste water. The very first gift I gave to Yve when she bought her new house was a bright yellow bucket which has done sterling service for the last eight years! I am pleased to report that the said yellow bucket has spawned progeny. This contingency plan of having multiple buckets, I hasten without holes, unlike dear Liza's, compensates for empty water butts. On an equally important point vis-a-vis water conservation,  given the enormous quantities used in the  manufacture of food, clothing and consumable durables, the question of the world's population edging, inexorably, toward 7 billion has to be central to the effective management of this increasingly scarce resource. So intelligent conservation of finite resources has to go hand-in-hand with an international commitment to limit the growth of the human population through  education,  more equal distribution of wealth and universal  gender equality. 


  3. Tip from a farmer.

    Cover the bare soil around your plants with a simple permeable membrane then cover with wood chips ( i have about one tonne spare on the farm if you need a bit)this will trap the moisture and greatly reduce evaporation.

    Use your grey water on non edible plants (technically its illegal but be a rebel rabbi)dont for instance put washing up water around vegetables.

    Only water at night as it will also cut down on evaporation and soak plants dont give a little to everything but rotate the process much better to soak roots once a week than tease them everyday.

    As for cheese try goat or Ewe both animals require far less water than cattle as they take a far greater percentage of moisture from vegetation rather than drinking. My sheep for instance simply dont drink at all !

    This year i have removed all flowering plants from the garden except for leaving roses and lilac as they attract bees. In stead of bedding plants i have filled the spaces with pretty but edible plants purple pak choi, ruby chard etc. If its taking my time and water then it earns its place by feeding me.