Tuesday 10 July 2012

Water, water everywhere and not any drop to drink!

One of the "big picture topics" we discuss at the Low Carbon Cookbook is water, principally its high use in industrial agriculture. But sometimes we also discuss our domestic use of water (well, one of our group is a plumber!), in our own houses and gardens. As everyone focuses on rain as the weather oscillates from drought to downpour, Sophie Chollet invites all low-carbon kitchen and bathroom water-watchers to meet and discuss ways to reduce (over) consumption.

When I say to my French friends I live in England, they often joke about the weather, along the lines of “you should be used to rainy weather, by now!”. So when I tell them that actually we are facing a drought for the second year running, they are surprised. How is it possible to have a drought in England, where rain is part of the definition of the country?

The weather is certainly the cause: it rained very little in the last two winters. So this has led me to question the impact of our water consumption on ground-water level.

The availability of water supply was one of the big improvements of the 20th century’s houses. The widespread use of washing-machines and other modern equipment changed women's lives. They no longer had to spend hours cleaning dishes or washing clothes. Nowadays, access to water is a given. We would not consider living in a house without running water: we expect tap water to run everyday, all the year along, night and day (in France, when you build a new house, it is compulsory to connect it to the mains water and electricity supply, even if you would like to live off-grid).

Now we use water as if it was as common as the air. We have forgotten that tap water does not come from a never-ending spring. But our consumerism may have gone too far. We extract groundwater faster than it fills again and the levels are decreasing. Moreover, although we know how to remove most of the pollutants, some molecules, like residues of chemical medicines, remain in the water and affect aquatic life.

Apart from environmental issues, over-consuming water comes at a price. Producing drinkable water costs us energy and money (a third of our water bill is spent in water treatment). Water has to be pumped from a river, filtered, treated with chloride, ultra-filtered and deionised. Then minerals are added to make it drinkable.

Once in our tap, some of it is consumed directly, for drinking or cooking. Some is used for cleaning and is made into "grey water" with oil, soap or chemicals. Another amount is simply wasted: the water we do not use when we leave the tap running, unconsciously or from laziness. This water will be mixed with dirty water, increasing the volume sent to the water-treatment plant, and thus increasing the cost of treatment.

We also use drinking water to flush the toilet! After all the efforts put into cleaning the water, we use it to flush our toilet, sending the "black water" back to another water-treatment station!

Deciding to pool our ideas
The main obstacles, when one has decided to save water, are technical issues. In our modern houses, there is nothing to keep water in in order to reuse it. One of my friends would first wash himself with tap water, keeping the water in the bath to wash his clothes. After that, the water was dirty enough to be used to flush the toilet. Few people would bother with this, as it involves too much handling and storing, using buckets, carrying and transferring.

It is technically possible to collect rain water and use it for the house (for example for flushing or for the washing-machine). But how to do, when you are not a plumber?

It is also relatively easy to install a composting toilet in a house or a flat. Still, it involves some effort in emptying it, and a space for composting. Our houses and our life-styles are not made to facilitate those things. But it is not impossible, and putting our efforts in common is a good way to start!

In Brest (France), where I used to live, some people created the “Réseau Urbain des Toilettes sèches”, or urban network of composting toilets. They had a composting toilet at home (often in flats) and collected the compost weekly before sending it to a farm, where it was mixed with other compostable material. This does not only save water, but completes the natural cycle by bringing nutrients back to the soil. Indeed, urine is a great fertilizer, as it is very rich in nitrogen and phosphates!

Plumbing issues are not insurmountable. And for those who live in rented accommodation, why not build an “add-it” system that could, for instance, collect shower-water and transfer it to the toilet flush, or to a basin for treatment by plants? If you think we should moderate our consumption and are looking for advice about how to save water, then this blog is for you!

I would like to invite you to meet and share thoughts about water, speak about habits, saving tips, our desire or the difficulties we face. We can learn from each other about water saving, cleaning and cooking habits, hygienic issues that arise (or are feared!) when using less water.

For instance: boiling potatoes in a smaller volume of water would save both water, energy spent to boil it, time of cooking, and it will also reduce the loss of minerals from the potatoes into the water.

Some of us do use rain water in their house. Could we share our technical knowledge?
Some may wash dishes more efficiently than others. Why not compare the methods?

Do get in touch in you are interested! Sophie Chollet (s.chollet@uea.ac.uk or 01603 467595)

Images: rainwater butt for loo in Solitude by Chris Hull; wee collecting tubs at Edible Landscapes London from Waste Not, intro post to the Water week on the Social Reporting project by Jo Homan; grey water filtering system at Sunrise Festival, 2011.


  1. Hey Sophie, really enjoyed this post and hope you get a group together to share knowledge.

    Over the past ten years I've gone from a once a day bather and serial toilet flusher, to a bath perhaps once every couple of weeks (I do have strip washes inbetween of course!) and more infrequent flushing.

    The bathwater then gets used as a toilet flush. It does change colour and bacterial content as it ages, but it's just a few microbes and does the job just fine.

    And in the winter it stays fresh longer!

  2. Flushing Phosphorous (essential for life) down the drain and into rivers where it causes problems, then digging more out the ground in Canada, has to be one of the more stupid things that we all do every day. I operate a closed loop system - grow veg > eat veg > pee in bucket > empty bucket on compost > put compost on garden > grow more veg. Which is OK for those lucky enough to have a large garden but we should be designing such ideas into the services to be provided for all new housing developments.

  3. no doubt about it - water is going to become one of the crucial items in short supply in the near future - Ive just retirned from Nepal where we have been discussing water shortages in rural areas and water pollution on towns - and this in a country that is rich in water resources compared with most countries.
    capturing and collecting, reducing overall use, recycling and restributing are key elements of a strategy ar household and local community level - but national strategy required.