Sometimes it takes a crisis to wake us up to the reality of a situation. Earlier this year, Cape Town, South Africa found themselves suddenly in the middle of a crisis that no city its size had faced before: a complete water shortage.
The government predicted that the city would run out of water if residents did not change their practices. They declared an imminent “Day Zero,” in which the majority of the taps throughout the city would be shut off, and water would only be available to residents through collection points scattered throughout the city.
Through vigilant cutbacks and widespread commitment to efficient water usage, Cape Town’s Day Zero has been continually pushed back, and now the city may be safe from the dreaded day after all. Safe or not, though, the crisis has drastically changed the lives of Capetonians, who have cut their daily water use in half over these past few months.
Scares like Cape Town’s are not just happening across the ocean. California came close to facing a similar fate not too many years ago following a five-year drought. Flint, Michigan, is still recovering from their contaminated water crisis that rocked the city over two years ago. It’s happening right here on our soil, too.
Environmentally, we cannot deny that we have found ourselves in a precarious place. And planting trees (though a commendable effort) is not the only way to counter the damage.
In the US, water is not necessarily a resource that we think of as limited. Why would we? Most of us have easy access to clean water at our very fingertips, not to mention a seemingly endless supply stocking the shelves in our stores.
The water crises facing other countries, such as South Africa, seem so far away from the idyllic environment we live in. For some of us, even California seems worlds away. But our distance from the disasters striking others should not function as an excuse for us to sit back and enjoy our own free-flowing supply — it should be a warning. It should be a call to action.
A worldwide crisis
The situation in Cape Town, South Africa has been if not a wake-up call then a shock to many people of just how quickly a largely populated, developed nation can go from a tourist destination to a state of national disaster. One of the restrictions Cape Town residents faced in their attempts to avoid Day Zero involved limiting their water usage to about 13 gallons of water per day. To put that into perspective, the average person in the US uses between 80 and 100 gallons a day.
Cape Town is just one incident, and it swept the news because it was the first modern major city in the world to face a water shortage at such an extreme level. However, there are a number of communities across the globe that have lacked access to clean drinking water for years. In some countries in Africa and Asia, people walk an average distance of nearly four miles a day to reach drinkable water.
If that’s not enough, consider California. Consider Flint. These situations function as a reminder that water is a limited, precious resource, not to mention essential to life as we know it.
An invisible threat
The water crisis is, in many ways, invisible to us. Because we do not see the immediate effects of it in our daily lives here in the US, we are far slower to respond. Its invisibility is heightened by the fact that we have developed a growing dependence on groundwater.
This reliance is dangerous because in most areas, there is little regulation in place to limit how much water is taken. As a result, water is being pumped from the ground at a faster rate than it is being replenished, interfering with the natural process. Because we are not giving the water tables time to rise again, we have to keep digging deeper and deeper to access our freshwater through aquifers instead. This is concerning because, while aquifers can be helpful during droughts, most of them are a nonrenewable water source. And we are slowly running them dry.
What we can do
Though we may not be facing an official national disaster in our homes here in the States, our situation still calls for urgency. As human beings, we have an innate dependence on a source that is more finite that we believe it to be. We must start taking simple, but necessary steps now to adopt an attitude of appreciation for the water we have.
Here are a few ways we can start.
Turn off the tap — every chance you get.
A running tap is one of the quickest ways to waste water. So any way you can avoid it is incredibly beneficial. For example, when you’re brushing your teeth, try filling up a cup with water to use for your rinsing instead of letting the tap run.
Another idea is to fill a carafe or jug with drinking water at the start of each day to keep in your refrigerator. Most of us prefer our water ice-cold, but it takes a little while for the tap to run to reach that perfect temperature. Keeping a supply in the refrigerator ensures cool water at any point during the day and saves perfectly good water from going down the drain.
Refrain from using the toilet as a wastebasket.
It’s tempting when you’ve just squashed an especially large stink bug to toss the tissue-wrapped carcass in the toilet. And when you’re sick with a nasty cold, it’s hard to fight the desire to flush away all the evidence, rather than face a growing pile of tissues in the trash.
However, the largest indoor use of water is flushing the toilet. Roughly 33 gallons a day are attributed to toilet use. Think back and compare that to the 13 gallons a day that Cape Town residents are currently being afforded. With this in mind, it is hard to justify using the toilet for anything more than its primary purpose.
Know your (plant) stuff.
When it comes to watering your plants, less isn’t always more. A routine daily sprinkle over the surface of outdoor plants causes shallow rooting. In other words, plants form a dependence on frequent watering, which hurts them in the long run. If you give plants a good, thorough soaking and do so less often, it forces the roots to move deeper into the ground and enables them to withstand drought.
When it comes to indoor plants, the issue is typically overwatering. A good rule of thumb, however, is to only water them when they need it (i.e. when the leaves start to droop). Most don’t need water more than once a week. Remember how valuable a resource this is — even when it comes to your plants!
Invest now; save later.
The household appliance market is increasingly providing more eco-friendly products, and this includes not only energy-saving devices but water-saving, as well! The EPA estimates that by replacing your shower head with a WaterSense certified one, you could save up to 2,900 gallons of water a year.
Fixing leaks is another way to significantly save water in your household. Leaks account for 12 percent of water usage — that means 12 percent of the water we use is not being used at all! Taking the time and money to address leaks in toilets, especially, can save a great deal of water from going to waste.
If nothing else, it is important to remember that even though 70 percent of our earth is covered in water, less than 1 percent of that is accessible drinking water. Over 7 billion people must live off of that amount, and we Americans are given far more than others. Let’s not waste it.