How to Save Water

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By Lisa McGregor

It’s not just Madiba, Table Mountain and our diverse culture that make South Africa rich; we are actually rich in many natural resources. All except one very important one, water. Water is a very vital resource. And we’re not just talking about drinking water. There’s also water for cooking, cleaning, bathing and gardening. Water is something we simply can’t run out of. And the sad fact is this may very well happen in our lifetime. We need to change our habits drastically, starting now. 

South Africa has unevenly distributed rainfall. We have good periods of rain as well as frequent droughts. Rain falls a lot more over the eastern half of the country, while the western half is drier. Our increasing population rate means we have an increasing demand for water. Good water management needs to become a priority for our country, and in our homes.

South Africa’s Rainfall Stats

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97 per cent of the earth’s water is in the sea. Which leaves only 3 per cent that could be considered drinking water. Why so little fresh water? Well, there is more, but 75 per cent of it is frozen in the polar ice caps. 

With regard to South Africa, the stats make pretty dismal reading. About 43 per cent of our rainfall falls on 13 per cent of the land, and only 9 per cent of that reaches our rivers. Other countries don’t have it so badly. With South Africa being a semi-arid country, our average annual rainfall is about 450mm. That’s below the global average of 860mm. The driest part of South Africa receives about 200mm, and the wettest up to 2 500mm. 

But if only the rain fell where it was needed. About 12 million people in South Africa have no access to clean drinking water. And if you can believe it, about 50 per cent of rural households have no piped water at all. 

A report released in October 2009 by the Water Research Commission of South Africa found that “South Africa has 4 per cent less water than 20 years ago. Rand Water is predicting that demand for water in South Africa will outstrip supply by 2025. It also believes Gauteng will potentially face a water shortage as early as 2013. In Cape Town the scenario is not much better, with a water shortage prediction by 2016”.

The Global Fresh Water Situation

In an article in the New Scientist called ‘Earth’s Nine Lives’, Fred Pearce, a senior environment correspondent, looked at how much further we can actually push the life-support systems we rely on so heavily. With regard to water, he says, we are “drying out the landscape, emptying our wetlands and destroying fisheries”. Because we control most of the rivers in the world and are damming them and diverting them, for our convenience and of necessity, about a quarter of our river systems don’t even reach the sea any more—at least for some parts of the year. 

But we carry on using water without thinking, as if the supply were endless. This excessive water use will eventually threaten our lives in three ways. There will be a shortage of drinking water, a loss of irrigation water for food production, and changes in climate. Pearce continues, “Over the past 50 years, dams on rivers in central Asia have dried up the Aral Sea. Without the influence of the sea on climate, the entire region has become hotter in summer, colder in winter and more arid all year.”

Worse. It’s not just river water we’re using up. We are also pumping out water from underground reserves. The water is held in the nooks and crannies of rocks underground. Some water reserves have taken ages to accumulate and with the increased use of rainwater above ground will never be replaced.

The effect of all this is alarming, but it’s nothing we notice from the comfort of our couches. We don’t see how draining wetlands and razing forests can affect how many times a day we can bath. The water still comes out of our taps. Our pools are still brim-full to overflowing. 

Pearce says, “Deforestation of the Amazon will reduce evaporation rates in the tropical Americas, potentially changing weather patterns in the northern hemisphere, including the Asian monsoon.”

At the moment we haven’t over-used our water resources. We would know it if we had. But Johan Rockström, a hydrologist and director of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, suggests that the way we can stop a water crisis from disrupting our life-support systems is to limit our usage of river water to about 4 000 cubic kilometres per year. At the moment we are using about 2 600 cubic kilometres, but “the excess is ‘largely committed already’ for irrigating the crops needed to feed the growing world population”. Says Rockstrom: “To keep within the boundary (4 000 cubic kilometres) while feeding the world, we might have to curb irrigation of non-food crops like cotton or bio-fuels.”

Biggest Household Culprits

Do you know what the biggest use of indoor water is? You may be surprised to find out it’s the toilet. It uses, on average, about 11 litres of water per flush! So if an average family of four uses the toilet four times a day, it will flush away 176 litres of water.

Other culprits include washing machines, which use about 100 litres of water per cycle. People with gardens should note that a hose uses about 30 litres of water per minute. A shower uses about 22 litres per minute, and the average tap runs at 10 litres per minute. 

 How to Save Water in the Home

Check for leaks. A leaking tap can waste more than 2 000 litres a month. Do regular checks on pipes, dishwasher hoses and taps.

Close the tap and plug the sink. Don’t leave the tap running while you are busy at the sink. Rather put in the plug and put some water in the sink—that goes for brushing your teeth, washing your face or hands, washing fruits and vegetables, or rinsing the dishes. 

Brick in the loo. Place a brick, in a sealed plastic bag (so that the brick doesn’t disintegrate and damage your plumbing), in the cistern of a regular toilet to reduce the amount of water used. Or use a plastic bottle, filled with pebbles, sand and water. This should save about two litres of water per flush. Don’t flush tissues, insects and other such waste down the toilet; rather use the bin.

Cooking. Great water-saving cooking methods are microwaving, steaming or using a pressure cooker. Cut down on water loss by using tight lids on pots and simmering instead of boiling.

Install water-efficient taps or tap aerators. This will cut water usage without your even noticing.

Thaw frozen foods. Don’t run them under hot water; rather thaw your frozen foods or defrost them in the microwave.

Dishwashers. They can use up to 40 litres of water per load. So upgrade to a dishwasher with a 3 star/AAA rating—this uses only 18 litres per load. Always wait for a full load of dishes before starting. This will save water and energy, and it will reduce the amount of detergent entering the sewerage system.

Washing machines. Many have a load adjustment button, so make sure to adjust settings for every load. Or wait until there’s enough washing for a full load. Divert the grey water to the garden. Ask at your local hardware store how to do this.

Shower. A bath uses five to ten times more water than a shower. Use a bucket to collect water while waiting for the shower to get hot. Try to cleanse yourself only once a day. If you exercise in the evening, change your habits to showering or bathing in the evening, instead of both morning and evening. 

Showerheads. Install a 3 star/AAA showerhead. This will save around 10 litres of water a minute. 

Pool covers. So your pool won’t need to be filled up so frequently, use a pool cover. It reduces evaporation.

Collect rainwater. A rainwater tank will help save water, especially for watering a garden. 

Grow indigenous. Grow plants that are indigenous to your area, as they usually need relatively little water. For example, a lawn of indigenous buffalo grass uses far less water than one of alien kikuyu grass. Water at night, too, and to reduce evaporation, mulch the soil around plants.

Reuse grey water. Whether you use a bucket to collect grey water, or have a collection system installed, this will help greatly to reduce your water use. 

Green detergents. Try to use phosphate-free, eco-friendly detergents and cleaning products.

Report. Water pollution is a crime; report it to the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.