If there’s one thing we’ve had firmly rammed home in our time on the croft, it’s the absolute importance of water.
We use water for drinking, cooking, washing, flushing toilets, cleaning clothes, watering vegetables, watering livestock, painting, making mortar, cleaning and disinfecting livestock areas, in our cars, and much, much more.
Having spent many years in the outback of Australia, I was already aware of the importance of water conservation but it’s one thing to work with a limited amount of water and quite another to suddenly find you have none whatsoever.
The situation was even more shocking for the Other Half as she’s always had water at her fingertips, even when living in Egypt.
Suddenly, she had to think about every drop of water she (and the boys) used, whether she had a good use for what little water we had, whether it was safe for that use and where replacement water could be obtained.
The latter was the most enlightening and most difficult part of our waterless situation.
When you have water that flows out of a tap, whether it’s from the mains, from a borehole or from tanks, you simply don’t appreciate the amount of time and energy that’s required to transfer water from its source to the place that it’s needed.
When the flow stops and you have to resort to buckets, manual pumping and lifting, and vehicular haulage of water, the time and effort surges to the fore.
At the height of our water crisis, I was spending two to four hours a day finding and moving enough water for ourselves and our livestock—and I usually had the advantage of having an electric pump, a hand pump, water butts and tanks, buckets, and a Land Rover that could cart 200 gallons at a time.
Prior to the beginning of the 20th century, most Western households drew their water from wells, cisterns, streams, rivers and, if they were lucky, aqueducts.
The well might have been shared by a village or in the grounds of a house or farm, while cisterns were replenished by rainwater collected from roofs or piping from diverted streams.
The lucky few had hand pumps, at the well-head, above the cistern, or in a kitchen, scullery or an outbuilding and connected to the water source by a short run of piping.
For most, though, water was taken from source to use by bucket.
The bucket had to be lowered into the well, filled, hauled up and then carried to where it was needed. The more water that was needed, the more physical effort that was required and the more time it took.
Even before our borehole dried up we were used to the effort required to shift buckets of water as we water our pigs by hand, spending 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes around noon and 20 minutes in the evening doing the job.
We’d fill two 10-litre buckets with water at the house, carry them out through the steading, around and up the hill and tip them into the troughs. Then do it again, and again, and again.
But the job multiplied exponentially when our water source dried up.
Initially, I drove into the village with a load of jerry cans, filled them from taps at the houses of friends, lifted them into the Land Rover, drove home, unloaded them, emptied them into butts and then repeated the trip.
Then I converted the Land Rover into a bowser, with four 50-gallon tanks and an electric pump. It sped things up appreciably and reduced the effort markedly, but it was a still a long and laborious process.
What was interesting was how quickly we opted for the low-energy physical energy approach—and I don’t mean using our technological solution of the Land Rover bowser as even that was hard work.
Instead, we dramatically cut our consumption back to something that our ancestors would have recognised—one or two bucketfuls of water would be used for all domestic activity, while the rest went to the pigs and chickens.
The priorities were clean, boiled water for drinking and cooking, clean water for washing, and tolerable water for everything else.
The toilet was one of the first technological devices to be largely shut down. Flushing the toilet used far too much water, even if it had been used for something else first.
We’d keep a half bucket of water by the toilet for flushing solids, using just enough to get them around the U-bend, and that was it.
The washing machine was also abandoned early on as it proved to be another prodigious user of water.
Hand washing of only the filthiest of clothes was the order of the day until the Other Half gained permission to use the washing machines in her workplace—and even then usage had to be kept down due to time constraints and to respect the privilege she’d been allowed.
We have a dishwasher in the kitchen, but as we didn’t use it it wasn’t an issue. If we had, it would have been taken out of use immediately.
Washing was cut back to the bone—I’d have a two-minute shower once a week and wash in a basin of murky water of an evening. The boys were washed with a flannel and a basin of water, but the OH was lucky enough to use the showers in her workplace.
The overall effect of the borehole drying up was to cut our domestic water consumption from 450-500 litres per day for four people to 40-50 litres per day. (Various sources quote average UK domestic consumption as 150 litres per person per day so we were down to 10-12 litres per person per day.)
About half our water was being flushed down the toilet and another 35-30 per cent was going through washing machine.
What’s particularly important is that the water going doing down the toilet and into the washing machine was good quality drinking water. In other words, we were pouring 400 litres of good water into our septic tank every day.
If we were on mains water, the significance of that is even more immense as mains water is treated and pumped at great expense.
We quickly realised there’s no point in being economical with water by not using the dishwasher, cutting washing machine use, reducing garden irrigation and not washing the car, if we continued to flush vast volumes of water down the toilet.
Unfortunately, the lessons we’ve learned from our water shortage are completely ignored by Western society, business and government and are quickly forgotten by other parts of the world as they develop.
Water is now so undervalued that we can spend a fortune getting it to our houses, only to contaminate and flush the bulk of it away down our toilets.
We certainly won’t be forgetting our lesson any time soon.