Water-saving tips recall the summer of ’76

The Great Green Team

19 May 2022

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There is only one thing my chemistry teacher ever said that I’ve remembered – that in the future water would become so scarce that wars would be fought over it.  After saying this, he chuckled and added, ‘I’m just glad I won’t be alive to see it.’

 I can’t have been the only pupil left after this grim prophesy with nightmares about Waterwars. (Teachers didn’t go in for trigger warnings in the late ’70s.)

At the time, memories of the drought of 1976 were still fresh in our minds. For my generation this hadn’t seemed such a big deal at first.  Apart from not being able to sleep on sweltering nights more typical of Lisbon than Leeds, there had been considerable upsides to a drought if you were a child.  

Saving water was a good excuse for not washing as thoroughly as expected, the plagues of ladybirds that covered entire walls were frankly fascinating and was there ever a better argument for drinking dandelion and burdock at mealtimes? (But, mum, we’ve got to save water!)

A trek for water

Even the standpipes that were being set up in the streets were something new and interesting. Until, that is, our local standpipe got erected and it wasn’t, as we’d expected, right outside our front door but a good five-minute walk away. A five-minute trek to get water! And queue for ages for it! And carry it home in buckets!  Turned out droughts weren’t as much fun as we’d thought.

Thankfully, rain clouds saved the day before we ever had to trek, queue and carry home what had previously come so easily we’d never given it a second’s thought. But we had learned a very important lesson.

 Water does not necessarily have to be on tap.

An incident some years later confirmed my new respect for H2O (oh, there is something else I remember from chemistry) when I found myself stuck on a broken-down train for hours with nothing to drink.  

Those thirsty hours were spent fantasising about water (not dandelion and burdock, thanks) and speculating how much I would be willing to pay for a single glass of water. It would have been A LOT. Suddenly those stories of people lost in the jungle who end up drinking their own urine made sense.

‘Toilet to tap’?

I was reminded of this when I read of plans being considered by the Government to recycle waste water. These so-called ‘toilet to tap’ proposals would involve sewage water being treated and then pumped directly into the public water supply, instead of into rivers.  (I do hope you’re not drinking your first cuppa of the day, dear reader.)

Unsurprisingly, an obstacle to the plan is the public perception of this kind of water recycling.  You can imagine the fun the headline writers would have. But the accompanying comments from OFWAT, the water services regulation authority, are no laughing matter:

‘Our water resources are coming under increasing pressure from population growth, economic development and climate change…while water shortages are forecast to be most acute in the South and South East of England, severe drought is a widespread risk that needs to be managed.

‘These factors all contribute to a growing sense of urgency that we need to act now to develop new strategic resource solutions to avoid severe restrictions to water use in the coming years.’

A startling fact I read elsewhere is that the South East of England has less water available per person than some African countries.

Not wasting water is plain common sense, and as we approach Water Saving Week (May 23rd to 27th) one thing that’s not in scarce supply is advice on the subject.

So what are the best ways to save water?

As a child of ’76, I thought I was already careful with water, but two books I read recently added simple suggestions to my daily routine that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of before.

In The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide, Jen Gale suggests keeping a jug near the sink and when you want hot water, letting the tap run into this rather than down the sink. You can tip this into your water butt or use it to boil the kettle or flush your loo.

And how about this: Stand a bucket in the shower to collect water that would otherwise go down the drain as you wait for it to heat up. Use this to flush the loo.

Reuse cooking water

In Going Zero, Kate Hughes suggests washing vegetables in a bowl of water and then using this on the garden. You can also use drained, cooled cooking water on the garden or to store in a water butt.

Kate also suggests only washing clothes when they’re dirty, relying on spot cleaning and the ‘sniff test’ most of the time. I’m an old hand at this already. It’s something I started doing once my son reached a certain (teen)age and suddenly raised his laundry standards to the level of 5-star hotels preparing for royal visits. Fed up with arguing that his jeans couldn’t possibly need washing after a mere two hours’ wear, I developed a secret new system:

1. Pick jeans out of laundry basket.

2. Hang up in wardrobe.

 I probably did this about 10 times before washing a pair of his jeans. And unless he reads this post he will remain none the wiser.   

What about water butts?

Did you know that 85,000 litres of rainwater per year can land on your roof?

Water butts are a no-brainer if you have access to outside space and a downpipe.

How do water butts work?

With a water butt, rainwater falls from the roof into the gutters, but rather than flowing through the downpipes and down the drain, a diverter is inserted to collect it in the butt. Once the water butt  has reached maximum capacity, the rest of the water will simply divert to the drain.

Most water butts have a 100-200 litre capacity but some types can be connected to each other so you double the storage. A well-fitting lid blocks debris and light, preventing the growth of algae.

Plan bee

In dry weather plants stop making nectar so keeping them well watered for the sake of bees by collecting rainwater makes sense.

Rainwater is better for plants as it has a lower pH than mains water as well as more nitrates and oxygen to help them grow.

How to save water without feeling deprived or depressed

Top 10 water-saving tips:

1. Take a shower instead of a bath. A five-minute shower uses about 40 litres of water, which is about half the volume of a standard bath. And shortening the length of your shower by just one minute also makes a big difference.

2. Fix dripping taps – they can waste enough water in a year to fill a child’s paddling pool every week of the summer.

 3. Fit low-flow aerators on taps and showers – you get the same water pressure but use much less water.

4. Turn the tap off while brushing your teeth. A running tap uses up to nine litres of water a minute.

5. A water-saving device in your toilet cistern could save between one and three litres each time you flush the toilet.

6. Fill a jug of water and keep it in the fridge for when you want a cool drink.

7. Wait till you have a full load before using your washing machine or dish washer.

8. Use a watering can instead of a sprinkler or hosepipe in the garden.

9. Water the garden during the cool part of the day in the morning or evening. Do not water in anticipation of a shortage. Soil cannot store extra water.

10. Wash your car using buckets of water rather than a hose.

Julie Halford

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