Environmental Ponderings No. 10: How much do we appreciate water?

How much do we appreciate water?  No, seriously, have you thought about how important clean, fresh water is to you and what it would be like without it? No, of course not, you are used to opening a tap and using as much as you want. It’s cheap, we are told it is one of our constitutional rights, so why should we worry about how much we use or where it comes from?

Facts and Figures

·         Approximately 0.024% of the planet’s water supply is available for human use as liquid freshwater in underground deposits, lakes, rivers and streams.

·         South Africa is a water scarce country, the 30th driest country in the world.

·         South Africa has an average rainfall of less than 500mm, the world average is 850mm.

·         South Africa loses between 37 and 42% of its potable water through leaks, wastage and illegal connections.

Sources: SA Government Press Briefing on Water Scarcity and Drought – 13 November 2015, Living in the Environment, G Tyler Miller, S E Spoolman, 18th Edition, Cengage Learning, 2015.

I am not saying that I am any better or any worse than anyone else but I think the concept of optimising water consumption only really “hit” me, practically (as opposed to academically), after I took the decision to manage my own water usage more effectively. That doesn’t mean I decided to go completely “off the grid” and resort to borehole water and water harvesting, but I looked at how I could use water more optimally. I first began to look at how much water we, as a household, were using.

The daily water readings I took, trying to relate usage to consumption were an initial eye opener. One begins very quickly to realise how much potable water[1] is used for non-potable purposes. The table below shows an interesting breakdown resulting from studies.

Water Use in Households

Low-Income Household Mid to High-Income Household
Toilets 73% 37%
Baths & Showers 19% 32%
Washing Machine NA 17%
Other e.g. cooking, washing dishes and clothes, drinking, etc. 8% 14%

 Households with Gardens 

Gardening 46%
Other 54%

(Source: Water – How is it used at home, HE Jacobs, LC Geustyn and BF Loubser, 2005)

I decided to make better use of my rainwater tanks (I had two which were only used for watering gardens and the washing of cars) by connecting them to my toilet water cisterns via a pump (which was, incidentally, solar powered.) The current on-going drought prompted me to add a third tank at the back of the house and link it to the first tank. This meant that I had a total of 4,700 litres of water available for toilet flushing.

Yes, I did consider the option of moving away from a water borne sewage system but I decided it was a little too complex and could be better managed in a two stage change at some point later in time. Change is tough so it is best to tackle it in manageable, bite size chunks.

We introduced a more disciplined toilet flushing regime where we didn’t flush the toilet after every use  and started filling the toilet cisterns, not connected to the rainwater tank, with a bucket. There is nothing better to focus the mind on “cost” than to relate effort and inconvenience to reward. This is much more difficult for the urban dweller. We didn’t compromise on hygiene and cleanliness but realised that a flush was not required after every use.. The consequence of this was that one heavy rainstorm filled the main tank and that full tank lasted us for three months until the next set of rains arrived. (Remember that although our inland dams were not getting rainfall, we on the coast were getting more frequent rains which filled the rainwater tanks.)

So, what we didn’t do was to change the washing machine to a lower water usage model or make use of grey water. Grey water usage requires more thought and more adaption to our plumbing which I was also not ready to face at this time. When the washing machine needs replacing, guess what is going to be one of the top requirements after energy efficiency?

It was quite a surprise to realise that, with a little thought, self-discipline, modification (and, yes, some money), we managed to drop our monthly water usage from over 12 kilolitres[2] down to below 5 kilolitres. OK, so it has little impact upon the wider drought situation but if we all took this on as a community responsibility issue and if thousands of people dropped their water consumption, then we might be in a better position to “weather the drought”…

[1] Potable water is water that has been filtered, cleaned, or treated to meet the standards for drinking water.

[2] One kilolitre is 1,000 litres.

Arend Hoogervorst is an environmental scientist with some 35 years of experience in South Africa in environmental management and sustainable development in local and central government, commerce and industry and private practice.

© Arend Hoogervorst, 2016.