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
There are MORE than 1001 ways to save water

At least, that's the impression I got in response to my last blog. I was sent so many links, tips, ideas and queries, from the tiny and almost silly (but every bit helps) to the huge and challenging (change the way we live, transform the way we think about water and use it). And nearly every piece of advice was a rabbit-hole to more fascinating places on the interwebz. (WHO KNEW THERE WAS SO MUCH ABOUT COMPOSTING LOOS? Seriously, folks: half of us are going to have to recalibrate our basic toilet-training. But that is a post for a day when we're all feeling a bit stronger.)

Meanwhile I am swimming in so much information, it's both a bit bewildering and very heartening. Do I start sorting by category: kitchen, cooking, cleaning, laundry, toilets, bathing/showering/washing, kids, pools, hygiene, harvesting? Grey water, black water, well water, rain water, spring water?

But first I should explain why I picked "1001 ways to save water" as a title for this very homespun project. Obviously, it's a reference to the One Thousand and One Nights (aka the Arabian Nights), the tales told by the canny and learned Scheherazade each night to her husband the Sultan, who had a habit of murdering his wives as dawn broke. Each story buys her another day. And another. And another. And in the end, her life is spared. I didn't realise it in the moment, but I'm obviously hoping we'll somehow be spared Day Zero. Maybe it can still happen? Either way, doing everything we can to save water will buy us another day. And another. And another...

The other things I've realised is that saving water and confronting a crisis as huge as the one facing us can't be done in a vacuum. Many of the water-saving tips I've been getting belong within a set of broader green living principles, along the "reduce, re-use, recycle" lines. There are things we do (like chucking away food -- the spaghetti our child refuses to eat, the lettuce that's gone slimy in the fridge) that waste the water used for growing/production in the first place -- but we're not taught to think of the secondary consequences of such everyday acts. So a general water-saving rule of thumb is GO GREEN, as much as you can.

On the other hand, the urgency of this crisis means we'll have to break all sorts of green "rules" -- those of us with cars will be using them a lot more to haul water, we're going to be using more disposable plates, napkins, kitchen towels, nappies ... and please spare a thought for the families who will have to go on washing cloth nappies throughout the coming months because they can no more afford disposable nappies than fly to the moon. (I know it's Januworry, but if EVER there was a time to donate nappies to NGOs and creches that care for littlies...)

So I'll be writing about those tensions as well -- where saving water means more paper in landfills, for instance. Generally, though, the greener your lifestyle, the less water you'll use. And although I'm talking to the middle classes here, going green is not just for the wealthy (where DID this idea come from?): my parents are so green they're almost emerald, and as my mama remarks every time I say how lucky we were to have them as role models growing up: "We were being frugal, darling." Green living saves money.

But mostly what I've realised is that if we're going to save water and deal with a truly horrendous crisis (and we need to do both at once), we need to rethink our community ties. We can't live in sealed little bubbles: we need to get out and find out who our neighbours are, and which of them are vulnerable. The Day Zero scenarios present all sorts of horrible visions of criminal opportunity: water thieves preying on the weak and the confused. Let's say Auntie Mavis, who has asthma and no car, is thirsty and desperate -- and opens her door to see a likely-looking lad flashing a name-badge and offering to collect water for her for a hundred bucks and her ID book -- and never sees any water, her money or her ID again. So get to know Auntie Mavis and her set-up NOW.

OK, our suburbs stratify us by class to a horrible extent, but you have no idea how many terrified people might be a stone's throw from you: the widow next door may eat off Dresden china, but she may have arthritis in her hands that makes it impossible for her to carry water. The mum with toddler twins and a partner working in Dubai might barely be managing, and the thought of collecting water on top of everything else has her weeping in despair.

Fire up existing community networks: churches, mosques, synagogues, all those parental mafia groups that circulate around schools, every club, every charity, every neighbourhood watch network. Adapt them into "water webs". Don't interfere, gossip or stoke existing tensions, but do ask people -- especially those who aren't up to speed with the latest technology -- what plans they have, and if there is anything you can do to support them. (If nothing else, help them get online.) Establish trust now so that when the paw-paw hits the fan, you're a familiar face.

Some saint in one of my neighbourhood groups made an incredibly generous suggestion: that everyone with an UNSTRESSED well, wellpoint or borehole identify three "adoptees": a neighbour; a nearby vulnerable family; a nearby small and vulnerable NGO. And commit to giving them water for flushing and basic hygiene (washing up, cleaning kitchen surfaces, etc) once Day Zero arrives. I think that IF you have a source of groundwater that is plentiful and perennial, put this plan into action before Day Zero, in the interests of eking out those last few puddles in our dams.

As not many of us have wells, I reckon this principle could apply if you have a car and are able-bodied: every time you collect water from a spring, take a few folk who can't manage on their own. If you own a bakkie, load up as many people and their containers as you can, and get the huskier folks to do the lugging for the frailer ones. Make this a regular gig. Separate your strapping teens from their electronic gidgets, give them sunscreen, hats and reflective vests, and send them to the nearest spring for an hour or two to help little old ladies cart water.

Same applies if you have rainwater-collecting tanks: many don't, and while I love harvesting rain, it's strenuous, time-consuming, and very wet work. So the minute rain starts to fall, hand the strapping teens cozzies and gumboots, and send them off with jugs and plastic containers to harvest Auntie Mavis's downpipes for her.

Remember, this water is primarily for flushing: no matter how strenuously we may be saving water, everyone using a conventional toilet will HAVE to flush once a day (unless you hail from Planet Sfinkterlus), and every flush -- unless replaced by harvested or grey water -- drains our depleted dams. So start having frank conversations with your neighbours now.

And now for your bonus fun tip of the day: everyone has to count in the shower for as long as the water is running. So get wet while counting, switch off, stop counting, lather up. Switch on, resume counting. Rinse and repeat. Time's up at 60! This comes courtesy of my sister and her teenage daughter. Cost: free.

Link of the day: this made me happy for so many reasons.

Here's another link I just found on how to have a 5-litre shower -- I DID NOT KNOW there was such a thing as an electric bucket! Well done, Missy, I've been wondering about my bucket baths once the weather turns colder. (Have been abluting in cold well water, which is fine when the temps average 30 degrees, but...) Cost: R165, if you want that cute bucket. Otherwise, free.




Helen Moffett
1001 ways to save water: a start

So we face a major crisis, one with devastating implications for health, safety, public order, the economy (like it isn’t already reeling around punch-drunk). I’m talking about the fact that Cape Town is about to run out of water. And we ALL let this happen on our watch. Yes, the city council is behaving with all the acumen of toddlers on tartrazine, and national government would rather watch a major city go down in flames (literally) than do anything to help, for stomach-churningly self-interested vote-grubbing reasons.

But this is on us, the middle classes. I’ll never forget a Ugandan friend visiting ten years ago. She looked around at the majestic beauty of Cape Town and turned to me in horror: “Where are all your water tanks? Why are there none in the suburbs, where people can afford them? You’re an arid country -- are you people insane?”

I wish it were that pure. Insanity is no one’s fault. Instead we've been selfish, greedy and addicted to magical thinking: I’m OK, so who cares, it’s not my problem, someone else will come along and fix it, and hey, we can always buy water at Woolies. Right?

This blog and its suggestions are for the middle classes. Because WE are the problem. We are the ones who’ve been ignoring the writing on the wall. We’re the ones who install en-suite bathrooms with hot tubs in our homes. WHAT IS THIS THING WHERE EVERY BEDROOM HAS TO HAVE A BATHROOM, DO WE THINK THIS IS FUCKING ICELAND AND THERE’S A GLACIER NEXT DOOR?* (Sorry. Temper. Hot, you know.) We’re the ones who planted lawns and put in pools and garden irrigation systems while paving over earth. We've let greedy developers romp around building luxury estates for which it's been PROVEN there is no adequate water supply. Or worse, where these have threatened vital aquifers needed for growing food (you know, that stuff we believe is made in factories and dropped into supermarkets via elf-sleigh).

We let architects build houses without rainwater harvesting systems (the house I rent is only three years old and half the downpipes are lodged INSIDE THE WALLS and exit only at ankle-height, where it is impossible to effectively catch water). We’re the ones who think we need to shower every day and wash our clothes after wearing them once, who take baths and then pull the plug. We should have been screaming for rebates, subsidies and tax credits for installing water tanks and composting toilets for decades now. We refuse to even THINK about the massive, humungous problem that every single one of us shits,* every single day. INTO POTABLE WATER. We have been guilty of the most spectacular levels of denial.

OK, no more scolding. Things have been tough. Some of us have been working really hard. We’ve gotten our consumption down to 87 litres per person a day, and no wonder we feel bitter about the water-guzzlers who’ve just gone on splashing around like there’s no tomorrow (a cliché that now makes PERFECT SENSE).

(By the way, a little message for the 60% who haven’t bothered to cut their water consumption: I’m assuming that, say, ten per cent of you have no choice: you run a small business from home, you’re nursing your elderly incontinent parents, you have to keep things clean and sanitary. The remaining 50% -- that’s half the city – MAY YOU ROTATE ON A ROASTING SPIKE IN HELL. Oops. More temper. This blog is not for you: you’ve already demonstrated you don’t give a toss, and if there was any justice in the world, it would be only your toilets that clog, and only you queuing for water after Day Zero.)

But. The rest of us, already trying as hard as we can, now have to cut our use to 50 litres a day. And we’re hot and despairing. We’re facing a mini-apocalypse, and we’re scared. We’re getting the message, loud and clear, that we’re on our own, and we need to feel there’s something we can DO. Of course we belong to the water-saving social media groups, but we’re always stumbling across oozing little pustules of racism on those.

What we need now is ideas, encouragement and cheering. We need to rediscover the meaning of neighbourliness, to feel a sense of connection and community. Given our gobsmackingly awful and still painfully recent history, this is not easy. But we’re in this together, and we need to give each other all the boosting we can, as well as sharing resources – including the ones between our ears – wherever we can. We need a Blitz spirit, to keep calm and keeping on keeping on.

So I am going to post, in a series of blogs, every single hint, from the tiny (use leave-in hair conditioner) to the huge (revamp your gutters and connect them to rain tanks), from the costly (install a composting toilet) to the free (pee in a potty and then empty it down the bath plughole or in the garden), from the direct (lick your plates after meals) to the indirect (eat less meat) that will help us, the middle classes, to cut our water consumption to as little as humanly possible. I’m down to 30 litres a day (of which about 10-15 litres is municipal water, the rest harvested) for several months now. This is not meant to be a brag: it’s an indication of what’s possible -- and it’s still more than the 25-litre allotment due to me on Day Zero. So I need to know how to save every drop, too.

Here are the rules for interacting with this blog:

No ranting, no blaming. (Is my blog, so that’s MY prerogative.) Likewise, no conspiracy theories or this-is-God’s-punishment.

Politics: It is no good bitching about the DA and the ANC. Cape Town has been run by both, and both were warned that Cape Town would run out of water in 2016 yonks ago. Neither, IMO, stepped up to the plate. Besides, right now I respect the scum growing in my makeshift tank more than any politician, of any stripe. Stop bickering: you’ve failed us all. And it’s the vulnerable and the indigent who feel your failures most sorely.

Racism: Do you have water piped into your home? A flush toilet? Indoor bathrooms? A pool? A lawn? Then don’t even take a breath to whine about “running standpipes” and “taxi-washing” in the townships. (I’m not going to look up the reference, but a local scientist said that the amount of water filling pools in one square kilometre of Cape Town’s posh suburbs would wash 80 000 taxis.) The poor in this country live at semi Day-Zero level All. The. Time. So until you’ve had to cope with a child stricken by diarrhoea without safe, clean running water in your home, STFU.*

*I really want my posts to be user-friendly and friendly. But I am afraid I swear. A lot. I am going to try and give up my addiction to the f-word. However, I am going to use the word “shit” to describe faeces because the latter is a bummer (ha) to spell.

Which reminds me that water-saving tips are (to use a sideways pun) earthy by definition. We will be discussing shit and blood and other bodily secretions that we usually keep under control with H2O. If you are squeamish about this, congratulations on never having defecated, vomited or menstruated, and convey our greetings to your home planet (and warn them not to follow our planet-trashing example).

Comments are disabled (because racism and politics), but if you like, you can use the contact form to email me your water-saving suggestions, and I’ll publish them. Or tweet them to me @Heckitty. Trolls will get my Medusa face.

Here’s an old link to get us going.

Helen Moffett
Of boreholes and lawns: letter to a neighbour

Dear neighbour with a borehole:

I walked past your property the other day. Friends wanted to see round the estate, which is why we were out in the midday sun, in 33-degree heat with the southeaster wind adding edge but no coolness.

You have a borehole. That day, you also had a sprinkler spraying your bright green lawn. The wind was whipping most of the water away into thin air. Your pool was uncovered, and a pipe was pumping in water, which lapped to the brim. No one was swimming; your family and friends were sitting around the lunch table.

Gallons of ink and a megazillion bytes have been spilled or spent whining, howling and protesting at the way the City of Cape Town has handled a three-year drought which has us facing, in two short months, Day Zero: when we’ll open our taps and no water will flow out. Malls and businesses – anywhere that requires flushing toilets to remain operational – will have no choice but to shut down. The economic consequences will be unimaginably dire, the infrastructural damage significant. You and I will have to collect drinking water rations under the oversight of the army.

It’s no good crying over spilled water, but I have one major beef with the CoCT: that they’re quite happy to go on allowing you to toss your precious borehole water all over your lawn. That Level 6 water restrictions STILL permit you to do so, with zero legal consequences. Dear CoCT, what staggering tomfoolery is this? Over the period of a year, I witnessed my former landlords replace five acres of mostly indigenous garden with lawns and orchards on which the sprinklers ran from 10am until 4pm, Monday to Friday. (They still do, according to the gardeners.) And because they have a borehole, you allow this. How could you, CoCT, enable such abysmal stupidity and short-sightedness?

But let’s get back to you, dear neighbour. Do you believe in the Tooth Fairy? Santa Claus? That the water in your borehole will just hold out, magically, forever? That it’s an inexhaustible supply, provided by elves who live underground?

Guess what: a drought affects boreholes too. They are replenished by water from the skies soaking away into the ground. No winter rains for three years in a row means that groundwater is scarce and boreholes are running low everywhere.

Did you study science in primary school? You do know that living a kilometre or two from the sea, if the groundwater is depleted, salt water will seep in and render your borehole utterly unusable for the rest of your lifetime? There are no magical elves to stop this happening. Drain away all the fresh water, and salt water (which you won’t be able to use for your goddamn lawn, much less anything more essential, like boiling for drinking and flushing the toilet) will take its place. For good. Don't believe me? Google “saltwater intrusion” or “groundwater extraction”, and Wikipedia will break the bad news to you.

I concede that I am tired, hot and grumpy. I have been bathing in a bucket and peeing in the garden (including while recovering from major surgery) for 14 months. FOURTEEN MONTHS. My hair is constantly filthy and no amount of deodorant can mask the fact that I’m a bit whiffy. I wear the same stained and crumpled clothes day after day. I have “bucket back” from constantly hauling grey water and harvested rainwater for flushing. So I am in no mood to tolerate your pool and your lawn.

I recently hosted a wedding at my house. To make this possible, another neighbour offered me water from their well point. They have no pool, and their garden, like mine, is mostly dead. They use their water for household needs to take the strain off the municipal supply.

We filled my bath with their well point water, and collected another 50 litres in clean containers. This meant that 45 adults and 15 children had water for flushing. We also used that water for the wedding flowers, and all the cleaning, wiping and washing-up. We boiled it for coffee and tea. My pets are still drinking it.

Dear neighbour, THIS is what you’re going to be needing your borehole water for -- very, very soon. And although I wouldn’t wish this on you, there’s a chance that just when you need that water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing and flushing, you won’t have any left. I wonder if you’ll feel your lawn was worth it.


Helen Moffett
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