Waste Not

Many years ago, I was on vacation on a small Caribbean island. The hotel was new, and a man from one of the neighboring rooms found out just how new when he turned on the bathroom faucet, only to have the water run from the sink straight on to his feet. The drainpipe hadn’t been installed. He immediately turned off the faucet. Of course, he got a different room, because a hotel guest can’t be expected to find a pot for used sink water.

‘Like ancient pots spilled from a drowning ship, tube sponges bulge eerily’ (1993). Mixed media.
Artist: Panya Clark Espinal

I’ve been thinking about this story today, World Water Day. The theme this year is the importance of treating wastewater in the overall cycle of maintaining a viable freshwater supply. Currently, most wastewater around the world is allowed to flow untreated back into waterways, lakes, oceans and land. Not only is this a waste, but it contributes ever more to the pollution of existing freshwater supplies.

There are so many reasons we don’t properly treat wastewater, from lack of facilities and funding to the general human attitude towards natural resources: We assume they are virtually limitless until they are almost gone.

And so even those of us in regions with good access to water, and with advanced sewage treatment options lose sight of water’s value. We brush our teeth with the faucet open, we take long showers, we wash dishes with the water running, we use water-thirsty appliances, we irrigate recklessly, and still the water flows endlessly out of a faucet or a hose, to be magically whisked away by pipes to treatment plants most of us never see.

Like Ancient Pots spilled from a drowning ship, tube sponges bulge eerily (1993). Mixed media.
Artist: Panya Clark Espinal

We know there are areas where people stand in line for hours to get a bucket or container of water for cooking and bathing; we know there are places where there are no pipes to carry away sewage. One in ten people on the planet don’t have access to safe water or sanitary facilities. The rest of us open the faucet and let it flow.

Getting back to the hotel guest with the wet feet: If we all had to deal with the results of a running faucet and no potential for installing new pipes, would we be more attentive to how much water we use, and what we do with our used water before it drenches us?


Scarcity of Choice

Only about 2.5% of the world's water is fresh water. Only a small percentage of that (0.3%) is available for human use.Source: zmescience.com

Only about 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh water. Only a small percentage of that (0.3%) is available for human use.
Source: zmescience.com

When I was a teenager, my family spent a couple of years living ‘off-grid’. It was called ‘getting back to the land’. To me it looked a lot like an extended camping trip, but with small houses instead of tents. My main chore was to get water. There was a well on a neighbor’s property, and we’d been given permission to draw from it. So every day, at least twice, I would carry large jugs from our house in the woods, across the small road that divided our land from our neighbor’s, and fill the jugs at the well. I’d bring them back, then filter and boil the water for drinking, for washing, for dishes. I could carry around 3 gallons (11 l) per well trip, and each trip took me 10-15 minutes. Add to this the filtering and boiling, and it was a substantial daily task to get the same amount of water that most people use brushing their teeth with the water running, or two flushes of a low-volume toilet (we had a compost-outhouse, no flush toilets). Every water-related activity – from drinking a glass of water to cooking dinner to washing my hands or brushing my teeth – was directly associated with another trip to the well. I could easily quantify an activity in water-work time.

Then, after we moved into a more traditional house, there was an impressive but blessedly short-lived drought that lasted for a little under two years. We rationed water almost as much as we had when I was still hauling it by hand.

Thus purely by chance, I developed a deep appreciation for ready access to fresh water, and also, a sense that it was scarce.

I was lucky that its scarcity at that time was, for us, a matter of choice.

Water Footprint ChoicesFrom: Good Transparency

Water Footprint Choices
From: Good Transparency


World Water Day – website

UN WWD – International Year of Water Cooperation

Global Water Volume – United States Geological Survey illustration