Water hygiene


I'd forgotten the diversity of water. I remember the river and dam water of my early childhood and how soft it felt on my skin; and I relished the borehole water on my parents' smallholding (so full of minerals it was always clogging up the kettle); but water in my own home was just something that came out a tap until recently.

Now I have so many different kinds of water in my home, it makes my head spin. I treat the taps as radioactive, but this leaves me with:

  • Harvested well water (in baths and buckets and pots and jugs everywhere)
  • Harvested rainwater (mostly in small tanks formerly known as dustbins)
  • Harvested spring water from two different sources (this is relevant, as we shall see), with their own dedicated containers
  • Grey water (saved from showering, bucket baths, laundry, and, very rarely, house-cleaning -- I wash the floors only when the cats start sticking to them)
  • Black water (i.e., the water I've washed the dishes in -- black water is apparently the correct term for water in which there's biological matter such as food particles, grease, etc).

Then there's the emergency stash of bottled water. Oh, the irony: bottled water has always been in my top three list of Utterly Unecessary Environmental Evils of the 21st century (the other two being 4X4s in the suburbs and fabric softener). But, alas, I can see that in certain circumstances (rehydrating a sick child, for instance) we need water that we know is 100% safe to drink.

To go back to my water buffet: some of it starts out in one form and becomes another (I'll use well water in a bucket bath, transforming it into grey water). This is the NB message of the day, good people: all the water we're collecting needs to be stored appropriately and used in such a way that it poses no hygiene risks. Water is life: is is also a fabulously efficient means of incubating and spreading disease. This means that water shortages easily lead to outbreaks of tummy bugs, some of which can be lethal; also, coping with vomiting and diarrhoea without running water is pretty much a nightmare scenario. (This is also -- I imagine -- one reason why we're being warned not to store/stockpile municipal water. It may be safe to drink as it emerges from the tap, but there's handling, possibly contaminated containers, etc: you do not want to be brewing up a bug-fest in your garage.)

So this is tricky and serious business and takes some thought. For starters (side-eyes the City of Cape Town severely), I'd really like to know which of Cape Town's springs are safe to drink from. I have to rely on social media -- not necessarily reliable -- for the info that water from the Newlands spring is potable (safe to drink), but the one in Glencairn isn't. Also, I need to know what KIND of unsafe: if it's got bugs (e.coli) in it, I can still drink it if I boil it first, but if it's polluted with heavy metals and chemicals, no amount of boiling will help. A LITTLE INFO WOULD BE NICE, CofCT.

Ahem. I was saying. I've seen proof that the well water I harvest is safe to drink (in fact, it's full of all the good minerals), but I collect it in conditions that involve wind, sand, mud and bits of vegetation flying around (the southeaster always decides to blow on well-harvest day). So I use this for drinking and cooking, but only after boiling. Not just when making tea, coffee, etc; I boil it, wait for it to cool down, pour into ice-trays and water bottles that go into the fridge.

The Newlands spring water I drink as is, if it's just me. But I don't want to take even a small risk with the health of others, so mostly it all gets boiled too. The Glencairn water is always boiled, but even then, I drink it warily, not knowing what's in it.

So there's strict segregation, both in treatment and storage, between what I use for drinking and cooking, and the rest of my (non-municipal) water. Any water I'm going to use for drinking and cooking gets stored in those tough plastic storage jugs (I have them in the 25 litre and 5 litre sizes). I do my best to keep these sterile: as soon as they're empty, I pour in a tablespoon of bicarb, a cup of boiling water, shake around like mad, empty, add a bit more boiling water and rinse out. I also pour boiling water over the spout and lid. (BICARB IS MY NEW BEST FRIEND.) Someone pointed out that you can use Milton the same way. AHA.

I had a bit of a worry a few days ago when I realised I couldn't remember which container had Glencairn and which Newlands spring water. And was that well water in Jug No 3, or more spring water? Am going to get masking tape and label all my containers clearly: WELL WATER, SPRING (NEWLANDS) H2O, etc.

Once I've filled my "sterile" containers, which have proper tight-fitting lids, the rest of my well and spring water goes into basins, buckets, baths and is used for: bathing myself and my clothes; washing up; watering the animals; swabbing down surfaces and general kitchen clean-up. After it's been through these processes, it gets used for flushing.

Rainwater is a conundrum: usually it's full of visible dirt, so it goes into those 5 l bottled water containers that we're all re-using, and which can't really be sterilised (boiling water makes them melt), and is taken directly to the bathroom to be used for flushing. But once in a blue moon, it rains so heavily (NOSTALGIC SIGH) that the water from the gutters runs clear and I can't resist drinking it, and it is delicious and makes wonderful tea. I have used it for bucket baths as well, but basically, I treat rain water as a gentle form of grey water and reserve it for flushing. I also use it to wash dirty pots, adding a bit of heated well water.

You may have spotted that I spend my life boiling water, which is not the greenest thing to do, especially as my kettle is electric. You see what I mean about the water crisis disrupting the usual green principles. I'm also using (as well as bicarb and vinegar) more bleach than usual: both in the toilet (which hasn't had a handle flush in four months now) and a little splashed into the washing-up basin and the basin where I soak all the kitchen cloths. The latter can become bacteria mosh pits in the current conditions, so I'm always pouring boiling water on them. And if the stored water in the bath starts smelling stagnant, in goes half a cup of bleach. Note that once you've added bleach to any container of water, you can then ONLY use that water for flushing. DO NOT DRINK!

Something I like to do to keep my hands clean -- CRITICAL -- also when I have friends round, is to put out a basin of warm recently boiled (well) water to which I've added some fragrant bubbly handwash. People will set out the salad or cake or whatever and immediately look round for somewhere to wash or wipe their hands. It also means everyone can wash their hands before eating without going near a tap. Once this is cold and the bubbles gone, voila, more grey water for flushing.

My rule for grey water is that I ONLY use it for flushing, or (very rarely) pouring onto one of the very few plants left alive in my garden. If you dig into the City's website, you will find (eventually, under Guides) a pdf file on grey water that is both exhausting and exhaustive: it's not that user-friendly, but it will tell you everything you could ever wish to know about grey water. The guidelines seem hyper-cautious to me, but if you have small kids, elders, anyone frail or immune-compromised in your home, take a look and follow their suggestions.

Washing veggies, salad leaves, rinsing rice, lentils, etc, is another conundrum. I have a special jug for this, and I use spring and well water without boiling it first, with no ill-effects, but you may not want to live as dangerously. This also becomes grey water once all the rinsing is done.

A last word on black water, basically, water in which you've washed up: if this is greasy, it's not advisable to use it for flushing. I have a home-made outdoor water filter in my veg garden that I pour it through. If you live in a flat, I reckon this is one category of used water you should tip down the kitchen sink. All other kitchen and laundry water, if it has chemicals and detergents in it, should go down the toilet rather than in the garden.

Fun tips of the day: everyone is forwarding me a marvellous list of 30 water-saving tips from an anonymous Facebook source that starts: "1. Stock up on bottled water exclusively for drinking while the water stations figure themselves out." I don't want to publish them without attribution -- if you know who the author is, please let me know so I can share with credits. And if you find it on your social media feed, pass it along, it's such a useful list. (I had to google Wee Pong -- now there's a robust name for a product -- and am somewhat enchanted by #25: "Ladies, extend underwear life by wearing panty liners.")

Link of the day: this little gadget, which operates on harvested water and human-muscle power, will wash your clothes for you (I am shocked at how much water my little 5kg-load washing machine uses, even on the most eco-friendly wash -- 42 litres! and it's about to be mothballed). Friends on Facebook are giving Sputnik good reviews. Sadly, at R640, it's very much a middle-class option.

Helen Moffett