We Never Know the Worth of Water

…until the well is dry.  – Thomas Fuller, 1732
Have you ever looked at your water bill?  At the bottom of mine, there is a section called Consumption History.  It shows your consumption of water in cubic metres and then the number of days for that billing cycle.  There are one thousand litres in a cubic metre.  So you just multiply the cubic metres by 1000, divide the number of litres you’ve used by the number of days in the cycle and you can find out how many litres on average you used each day. 
My partner and I are the only two in our household using water, and his son every second weekend.  We do one load of dishes in the dishwasher every second day and three or four loads of laundry a week.  We don’t water our lawn because our lawn is basically a sandpit.  We shower every day, wash our hands on a regular basis, water the animals and plants and one of our toilets has a bit of a leak.  Sounds fairly average, doesn’t it? 
Well, living at the cabin has given us a whole new perspective on water. We have no running water.  Which means, all water has to be brought in.  Which means we are extremely frugal with it.  This isn’t even like camping, where once or twice a day you make the long trek to the comfort station so you can use a real bathroom.  This is rustic living at its best. 
Here’s how we conserve: 
  • We use the potable water (aka “good” water) for drinking and food preparation and we boil lake water for dishes.
  • We wash dishes in water until we can no longer see through it.  We rinse our dishes with “good” water. 
  • We lightly wet a rag and use it (and re-use it) to wipe the dirt off our hands before using hand sanitizer. 
  • When cooking, we prepare meat last so we do not need to sanitize the cutlery and cutting board between veg prep and meat prep.
  • When cleaning, we order our chores from cleanest to dirtiest, eliminating the need to clean our hands before doing one of the cleaner jobs.  (For example, this weekend, my first job was to work on the slipcover I’m making for the old couch because I needed really clean hands.  The last was to re-tar the roof.)
  • Anytime water becomes somehow too contaminated to use for drinking or cooking, we pour it into the dish water or into the cleaning water.  Nothing goes down the drain to the dry well until the end of the evening when we are certain we no longer need that water. 
  • The wash bin only gets filled halfway with soapy water when dishes are being done.  And we minimize our soap so we don’t have to use as much “good” water to rinse them.  
  • We do dishes once a day.  The total amount of water for a load of dishes at the cabin is approximately 5L.  An energy-efficient dishwasher uses about 15L.
  • Instead of rinsing dishes before washing them, as you do before you put them in the dishwasher, we wipe excess food off the plates with paper towels.  The paper towels go into the compost.
  • We love Clorox wipes for big antibacterial messes like allergens or blood from meat.  I know it creates waste but without accessible soap and water, it’s the only way we can be absolutely certain that surfaces are clean of dangerous bacteria and allergens.
  • We have an outhouse and a compost toilet inside so there is no running water used.
  • We do not yet have the capacity to either do laundry or shower at the cabin.  Both of these events take up huge amounts of water.  Right now, we have the lake to get ourselves semi-clean. 
  • We never throw out water until we have exhausted all uses for it.  The first time at the cabin, my 11-year-old stepson was scared out of his wits when I caught him pouring the rest of his glass of “good” water down the drain because he didn’t want it anymore.  I apologized for over-reacting and he promised he would save his water for later in a water bottle and then if there was still some leftover the next day, he would pour it into the dishwater.
  • We have learned to love the phrase “It’s cabin clean.”
Currently at the cabin, we have 65 L of “good” water in large 15L jugs (the ones that are used in water coolers).  We also have three 4L jugs that we fill with lake water for other uses.  This weekend we went through about 40L of “good” water and 16L of lake water that is clean enough to drink, though we only allow the dogs to drink it.  I felt that this 56L was an incredible amount of water to go through but I needed to keep in mind that we had five people at the cabin for two days and we were getting big jobs done – fixing the roof, building a deck, taking a load of broken furniture and garbage to the dump so there was more water needed for cleaning.  I should also mention that this water consumption total does not include the many other beverages that were consumed this long weekend to keep ourselves “hydrated”.  In fact, very little of the jugged potable water was used for drinking.  If we calculate two litres a day per person as the average for drinking water that’s another 20L to add.  So let’s say our grand total of water used for the two and a half days that we were at the cabin for five people was 76L.  That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? 
I started to think about our water consumption at home in the city.  I googled how many litres of water the average Canadian uses in a day.  According to Environment Canada, we use a whopping 329L per person PER DAY!!  WHAT???  How is that possible???  We are one of the highest consumers of water in the world.  (We love our water as much as we love our space!)
I began to wonder how much we use in a day at our house because I feel that we are actually fairly eco-friendly.  We have energy-efficient appliances and we don’t have to do dishes or laundry very often because it’s usually just the two of us.  I found my latest water bill in a pile on top of the filing cabinet.  I looked at the following info. 
I converted the cubic metres into litres, divided that by the number of days in the billing cycle and discovered that we use approximately 460L a day!  Divided by two (and sometimes 3), we’re still well below the national average but that means that some families must be well into the thousands of litres per day if they have several children (especially young children) or are taking care of elderly parents at home, have a large home and have a well-maintained lawn or garden.
460L a day in the city compared to 38L a day at the cabin. 
Who else in the world gets by on 38L of water a day?  The World Health Organization says that 50 -100 litres of water a day is the bare minimum for basic human needs for drinking, cleaning and cooking with few health concerns.  Over 894 million people in the world do not reach this basic minimum.  People living in Haiti, Uganda, Mozambique and Ethiopia get by on 15L per person per day.  In the two days at the cabin, technically we didn’t reach the basic minimum either, however, as Canadians, we have the luxury of prepared and packaged food, paper plates, plastic cutlery, hand sanitizer and a variety of beverages preserved and easily available in bottles and cans.  For so many around the world, even getting 15L of water is a huge effort.  
And it’s not just people in developing countries or dry countries that need to watch their water consumption.  People living in rural areas that rely on well water need to take measures to conserve their water unlike city-dwellers, especially in dry summers.  Flushing the toilet only when necessary, doing laundry at the laundromat or not having plants or a manicured lawn are all ways to conserve precious water (and money if, in the end, a new well needs to be drilled).
The cabin is a world of lessons to be learned for us.  Every time we go out there, we discover something new about self-sustainability and the natural world we live in.  It’s a huge learning curve and a lot of times it’s really a lot of work.  (First thing this morning, I looked at the filthy French press that I forgot to clean from the day before and the thought of turning on the BBQ to heat lake water to clean it just so I could have my morning coffee frustrated me to the point where I actually considered giving up coffee.  Yeah, I know, first world problem.)  But in all seriousness, we are certain that this experience is molding us into more environmentally-friendly, socially just and compassionate citizens of this world. 
I encourage you to look very closely at your water bill, to reflect on your water usage and to ask yourself if there is anything you can do to lower your water consumption.  

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