Peeing in the shower, and other (gross) ways to save water

My garden on acid. Uric acid.

My garden on acid. Uric acid.

The Western Cape is known for its Mediterranean climate -- long dry summers that bleach the grasses, winters of soaking mist and rain until we feel we're growing webs between our toes. But as a small geographical belt across the southern tip of the African continent, the region is particularly vulnerable to climate change. For those too blind, stubborn or stupid to recognise this, the last apocalyptic nine months have been kicking the dust of the obvious in all our eyes: we're still enduring the worst drought in over a century, with the region literally about to run out of water, and no end or solution in sight. To add insult to environmental injury, we've just been battered by a storm that tore up houses and infrastructure, then fanned hellish winds and even more hellish fires now burning the Garden Route. The photos of entire neighbourhoods and forests in flames, of dazed people, rich and poor alike, taking refuge on beaches, suggest Armageddon.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth is epic: successive political administrations of the city of Cape Town have focused on short-term vote-gathering rather than long-term solutions to a crisis they refused to acknowledge was coming. Blame is being hurled in all directions. The government, the filthy rich, big business, global capitalism, climate-change denialists -- no one is looking very good right now.

But the group of people most likely to have an impact, and who are most needed to change their habits, are the middle classes. That's us, with our internet connections, we who take flush toilets, indoor showers and plunge pools for granted, instead of seeing these as extraordinary luxuries.

My early childhood was spent on a farm in the Little Karoo, and I can't remember a time when water wasn't a precious resource, with bathwater shared and then siphoned onto the garden. And it bothers the HELL out of me, and always has, that because our sanitation system is inherited from a damp little island with water endlessly leaking from grey skies, we dump our bodily wastes in drinking water. I am not going to tackle the disposal of what my papa daintily refers to as "boluses" here, although for now, grey water does the trick, and I research self-composting toilets with deep fascination. Topic for another day.

But this malarkey of peeing in potable water HAS to stop. It's one of the most insane and wasteful things we do, and I have become a wee (oh ha ha) bit obsessive about it. The other truth is that I am simply not a fan of the "if it's yellow, let it mellow" policy. It gets niffy, especially if you have teenage boys in the house, and it means you have to clean the loo more often. (But if this is your preferred method, carry right on. The suggestions here are for those looking for alternatives.)

First off, urine doesn't pose health risks the same way that blood or faeces do. Google will tell you it's actually sterile, and while technically a waste product, it's full of nutrients that plants just LOVE. So your first option is to pee on the lawn (if you still have one, which you shouldn't). Depending on space and privacy concerns (remember, I am writing this for the middle classes, not those who live in crowded conditions in tenements or on a hanky-sized bit of sand), those with penises can piss directly onto/into compost heaps (and yes, you should have one of those too). Those obliged to squat can also wee in the garden, but this can be tricky if you're wearing tight jeans, and fine motor co-ords are needed to to avoid sprinkling your shoes. Fear not! Get a container specifically for urine collection (mark it so it doesn't get used for anything else) and keep it in the toilet. (Those oval P&P yoghurt containers are the perfect shape for settling between feminine thighs.) I used to be fussy about diluting wee with H2O in correct proportions before using it as fertilizer, but long since stopped bothering, especially as the gasping garden is by now grateful for ANYTHING liquid. 

But some are just not adept at wee collection, you live eight storeys up, or your garden is a Zen square of raked gravel, what's to do? If you have a regular bathroom, chances are you have two outlets for (almost) water-free urine disposal: the bath plughole and the shower drain. I was taught this trick by an adored elderly cat who hated litter boxes and going out on cold nights. A quick splash of water afterwards (far, far less than you'd use for even one of those little toilet flushes) and all is well.

Oh, stop fussing. It's NOT disgusting, any more than having the rest of your sweat and grime and skin cells in liquid form going down that same outlet. (But I draw the line at using the handbasin this way. That is genuinely EEEUUUW. And never ever ever the kitchen sink. *faints*)

It's a mind-shift thing: the most sensible time and place to pee is at the start of a shower, when everything will get flushed by the water anyway. Yes, this applies even at the gym, I don't care how much you are howling by now. Urine is considerably less icky than the fungi many of us carry on our feet, and over in the women's changerooms, no one is yelling "Unclean!" at those who are menstruating (and neither should they). Just make sure that everything is spotless by the time you've finished abluting, and splash the disinfectant they supply around afterwards. Wear slip-slops if you're bothered by the idea of any communal body fluids that might be lurking. 

Returning to plugholes, those with flesh hosepipes have the advantage of being able to stand and aim (IN THEORY, at least). But not being possessed of said useful hosepipe, I don't want to have to squat in the shower every time I pee, and dangling over the edge of the bath does seem both precarious and a bit gross. I'm lucky to have the most glorious solution: a bidet. And this is something everybody who builds a middle-class bathroom from now on should include (instead of the inexplicable parade of "spa baths" I saw when recently house-hunting). There are very good reasons there is a bidet in every bourgeois bathroom in the southern Mediterranean -- hot-weather countries in which men aren't often circumcised. They do a brilliant job as water-saving bath substitutes AND are an utter boon for the elderly, invalids, those having their period, before and after sex. (Also: soaking sore feet.) It was in India that I realised that the point of running water in a lavatory was to wash the body rather than the porcelain. Then I met my first bidet, and it was an AHA moment.

A bidet allows you to pee in relative physical comfort, and then use a trickle of water both to refresh your bits and wash out the "basin". It's the feminine equivalent of a urinal, with benefits. To keep the bidet itself squeaky-clean, pour in a cup or two of boiling water every other day, with a bit of bicarb or a teeny splash of disinfectant if you're really fastidious.

Those with ladybits might by now be wondering what to do about paper (this also goes for those who've picked the yoghurt container). Well, there are several options: a wastebin next to the bidet; using unbleached (green) loo-paper and composting it; burning it, if practical; or dispensing with paper entirely. Provide a small towel for each bidet-user, wash regularly, and make it a hanging offence to use someone else's towel.

(On the subject of paper, free random ladybit advice for al fresco peeing while hiking: a panty liner means you don't have to carry tissues. Piddle, a quick shimmy, pull up your broeks, and you're good to go. You're welcome.)

I don't know why bidets aren't more popular, especially as they enable one to wash "bits, pits and feet" with only a fraction of the water needed for either bathing or showering -- a Rolls Royce version of the bucket bath (which, let's not forget, is how most citizens of this country wash themselves). But for me, their greatest benefit is that they offer a private, comfortable, hygienic, odourless alternative to peeing in potable water. Yes, you'll use a little bit of water every time, but it doesn't begin to compare with a toilet flush.


Helen Moffett