1001 water-saving ways: Round-up #1


I have a confession to make. Yesterday (deep breath), I had a bath.

Wait! Put down those pitchforks! I can explain! My tub is a water storage container, where I dump water harvested from non-potable sources or that gets sand or vegetation in it during the collection and lugging process. I'd used about half of last week's haul for bucket baths, laundry and flushing, and the remainder was starting to look a little, well, tired. Dead moths and cat hair floated sadly on the surface. So I made myself a vast delicious drink and got in with a book. OK, it was cold. But it was 25 degrees outside, and I pretended I was sliding into a pool. It was bliss, and I wallowed for nearly an hour, thinking about how strange (and wonderful) it is that so many people I've never met should be sending literally hundreds of water-saving tips and ideas. I keep reminding myself this is a marathon, not a sprint; we may even find that we're in for the Comrades. We're going to get water fatigue, especially once the chattering classes get past the shock of having to live the same way many of their compatriots already do. (I was no doubt smackably smug, taking well water to the hairdresser for rinsing last week. Until the gentle young woman pouring it over my head said, "Yes, this is the way we do it at home, too.")

But thanks to your generosity and enthusiasm, it looks like there will be tips for every single day of the long and difficult road ahead. I've already mentioned a brilliant list of anonymous hints that's doing the rounds on social media, but it's taken on a life of its own, and people keep adding to and adapting it, so I'll be doing the same. If I inadvertently "pinch" your tip, please let me know so we can wave gratefully at you.

So how about a recap of the best tips so far? I have a vague idea of hitting 1001 tips one day in the future, maybe with little icons indicating what they're likely to cost, whether they're short- or long-term, whether they save a lot or a little. But let's kick off with some revision first.

1. We need to change the way we think about water. This is especially true for those of us who have running water and flush sanitation piped into our homes. For millions of South Africans, water is already a precious resource that costs sweat and toil to collect and fuel to heat. Our middle-class expectations that water will gush steaming from our dozens of indoor taps 24/7 are going to look as wastefully OTT to future generations as Cleopatra bathing in asses' milk. Our Roman-orgy relationship with water is over. We need to start respecting it.

2. Go green, especially when thinking long-term. So much of what we consume thoughtlessly takes water to grow, manufacture, transport. Saving water feels easier if you're already trying to minimise your jackboot on the planet. Cut down on the plastic (yes, I know, ironic as we all hit the shops for water containers), recycle, reduce, re-use.

3. We should stock up on a small amount of bottled water for emergency drinking and cooking use, at the same time (ironically) that we should stop drinking it if we have access to tap water safe for drinking. It takes far more water to "manufacture" bottled water than just the contents of the bottle. Plus a lot of it is basically expensive tap water dressed up in planet-choking plastic. If you don't like the taste of tap water, filter it, and if you like bubbly water (I know I do), invest in one of those Sodastream thingamabobs. Etiquette note: take your own bottled water to parties. Keep your eyes averted from your host/ess's supply and your covetous thoughts to yourself. (Ideas on how to be a water-wise guest here.)

4. This is a bit doomsday, but lay in some water purification tablets, not because the City is about to let frogs start spawning in our scant remaining supplies, but because (as water harvesters everywhere are learning) it can be hard to keep the supply lines sterile when handling containers, buckets, etc, especially when the southeaster is kicking up dust. (I'm doing fine boiling my well and spring water before drinking; you may not want to take a similar chance with your elderly parent or sick child.)

5. Likewise, stock up on all the medical supplies needed for tummy bugs or bladder infections -- anything that might have you or your family members trotting more urgently to the toilet than usual (anti-emetic, nausea and diarrhoea meds, rehydration salts, Citro-Soda, probiotics, charcoal tabs, etc). Perhaps pharmacists could make up and sell little #WaterCrisis packs of OTC medicines for tummies and bladders -- would be good to have the lot in a single basket.

6. And while we're talking clean water (I discuss water hygiene here), assemble your scrub buddies now. My favourites are bicarb (I use it to deodorise grey water that's starting to smell stagnant, as a dry shampoo,  laundry agent and more), vinegar (for cleaning surfaces, soaking pots, deodorising) -- and along with these gentle aids, good old deadly bleach. I use the thick kind for the lavatory, the thin kind to sterilise kitchen and bathroom cloths.

7. I've been washing my veggies for cooking in well water, but am going to start using Milton, which is also good for wiping down surfaces where germs must be bopped on the head (inside the fridge, chopping boards, microwaves, etc). Remember: tummy upset + water shortage = perfect storm of misery.

8. You should be letting your yellow mellow (although in truth, you shouldn't be peeing into a toilet AT ALL, and here's a post about the insanity of piddling in drinking water), but for those who sit to pee, paper should be dropped in a little bin next to the toilet. You can sprinkle in some bicarb to prevent whiffs, or break a little piece of incense into the bin. I burn my paper in a special compost/fire pit; obviously figure out a system for disposing of it that works for your lifestyle (and hopefully, the planet) and doesn't involve burning down the neighbourhood. Your dustbin might be the likely candidate.

9. The mellowing can be hard on the nose. I haven't used it, but my Stalwart Sidekick (aka my sister) says that Wee Pong (the name of this product gets a special "in-your-face" award) is brilliant, works instantly and keeps the loo clean. (It's an enzyme rather than a cover-up perfume.) It's pricey, but she says it's worth it, and you can apparently get it from nurseries or here.

10. Put on your grown-up broeks and start researching composting toilets NOW. I erred when I first mentioned them here, thinking they were an expensive investment. I was thinking of those posh ones that have chimneys, solid and fluid separation systems, and the ability to answer emails. (This straightforward one with disabled access is still my favourite.) Apparently you can bang a rustic but perfectly functional one together with some wood off-cuts and a bucket. A friend made one with a POOL NOODLE. Another ingenious local writer has dreamed up a system that includes a large pot plant, newspaper origami and a composter (I am on the edge of my seat -- HA -- waiting to hear if it works). Google is your friend (this is one of the best links I've found so far), plus there is a rash of courses/talks/lectures/demonstrations (the mind does a quick boggle) on this topic breaking out all over social media.

11. If you have a washing-machine, check which cycle uses the least water. In many makes, it's not the economy or the speed wash, but the synthetics cycle. Laundry uses a LOT of water (anywhere between 40 and 70 litres per wash, yikes), so try to collect it all for flushing. Or replace your machine with this device (called a Sputnik), which has become so wildly popular overnight, there's a waiting list. Or you could try the cooler-box method (a report on this coming soon to a screen near you -- instructions for use in this blog).

12. If you're relying on your taps for things like washing up and showering, fit them all with aeration devices/filters/heads that slow down the water flow. Guesthouses drawing on municipal water should fit these immediately, if you haven't already.

water-saving shower.jpg

13. There are plenty of options for showering (including hair-washing) that use 5 litres of water or less, and also enable you to make use of harvested water (rainwater, well water, etc). You can stand in a child's paddling pool or builder's cement tray or bath and sluice buckets over yourself; you can get one of those camping "bladder" showers and hoist it up over the bath; you can use the pressure-spray tank (see pic above) familiar to gardeners and farmers (everyone who's tried this raves about it, and it would also be a water-wise way of bathing someone in need of nursing care). Or you can simply rig up a 5-litre water bottle and use it as shown here -- a beautician who surfs came up with this brilliant idea. Remember to catch all shower water for flushing.

14. It may sound off-track, but if you have a garden, set up a compost heap or pit. There are many systems, some involving worms, ash, rotating drums: I sommer dig a hole about a metre deep and a metre across, and dump everything biodegradable in it, including kitchen paper. Why? Well, there are a thousand reasons to keep garbage out of landfills and put organic matter back in the soil, but for now: washing up. If you are shaken by the notion of licking your plate, or getting the family dog to do so, then scraping your plate into the compost bucket after meals is the next best thing. Wipe with a paper towel (better still, the paper napkin you used while eating) and chuck that into the compost as well. A compost pit is also a suitably earthy place to dispose of blood (from a mooncup, for instance, or biodegradable sanitary pads) or vomit. Sprinkle a good layer of soil or mulch over afterwards. (PS: urine is great in compost heaps, but for reasons too complicated to go into here, this is not a place to dump your dump.)

15. If you are reliant on municipal water for washing up, and you have one, a dishwasher uses less water than washing up by hand. Treat it as a storage place for dirty dishes and don't run it until it's absolutely full. If you run it at a high temperature (60 degrees), this should kill bugs left by Fido's tongue (although human mouths are apparently filthier than those of most animals). But if you have access to harvested water, use this to wash up by hand, and mothball your dishwasher.

16. We need recipes and meal ideas that generate as little washing-up during prep and after the meal as possible. (Watch this space for one-pot meal and Buddha bowl suggestions. I am going to have FUN here.) Eat directly out of pots, pans and containers. Lay in paper plates and wipe-able chopsticks. Each family member gets a mug, glass, plate (for dry food, like toast) they have to keep going as long as possible before washing. If you need to cater for big events, these bamboo boats (used at a wedding I recently attended) are a great alternative to plates, and can be composted or burned.

17. If you have a chest freezer, now would be a good time to cook large batches of rice, pasta, soups, dhal, stews, curries and veggies that need plentiful water for cooking. Freeze them in microwaveable containers (my parents have used marg tubs for this purpose for 40 years, with no discernible ill-effects) and note that cooking in the microwave, if you have one, is almost waterless.

18. Stock up now on the following: dry shampoo, antiperspirant (I'm not into brand recommendations so much, but Mitchum is worth every penny), leave-in hair conditioner, hand sanitiser, wet wipes (remember that you shouldn't flush these NOT EVEN WHEN IT SAYS YOU CAN ON THE PACKET -- try to get biodegradable ones that can go in the compost or make your own), hand lotion (all the hand-washing gave me fearful itching at first).

19. This should perhaps be the Golden Rule: be a good neighbour. Talk to those around you, your staff. Find out what resources you can share (a bakkie, a well, muscles to help carry water, tech skills -- get everyone with a cellphone or an internet connection hooked up to a water-saving group or onto a WhatsApp list, and show people how to get reliable information: explain the concept of fake news). If you're rich or lucky enough to be able to harvest water from an unstressed source, identify those you might want to share with, according to how practical this is and how vulnerable they are.

20. If you're rich, it's not enough to conserve water: you need to spend a bit of capital on water harvesting. And no, I do not mean all those I've seen this week installing 5000 litre tanks and then filling them with municipal water, or buying 100 litres at a time from the water shops (you do know that's two days' municipal water allowance gone, right?) [INSERT VERY SKEEF LOOK HERE] Install tanks by all means; rejig your gutters; look out for every possible means of harvesting rain (yesterday I spotted a brilliant rain-gathering contraption like an upside-down umbrella, designed by a tentmaker, that could even be used on a balcony; here's another version); if you have limited space, but plenty money, get rainchains and these elegant pot-tanks. And once your tanks are brimming, scoop up the overflow and drop this water off at the nearest elderly neighbour, or vulnerable family, or animal shelter, etc. Note that these are not just crisis measures: we're going to need to do this for the foreseeable future.

21. Here's a bonus tip: DON'T PANIC.

These 21 tips are the tip of the iceberg (wouldn't an iceberg be nice right now) of ideas that have come pouring into my DMs and inbox. More (and more and more) coming soon to a screen at your desk. *Soothing video clip of the world's coolest owl here*

Helen Moffett