Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Drip, Drip, Drop

Two summers ago, I spent three months working at an education center in Arkansas, where I led classes on sustainability, world poverty, and of course, caring for the environment. One of my favorite activities in the later of these classes was called "A Drop in the Bucket." I would start with 1 liter of water measured into a graduated cylinder. "If this represents all the water on our planet," I would say, "then this represents the amount of fresh water that we have. The rest of what is left is salt water." From the 1 liter I would pour out 30 mL, about the amount that would fit in a travel-sized shampoo container. To the rest of the water, I would add a few sprinkles of salt. "Now," I would say, "this isn't all water that we can use. Some of it is unavailable to us because it is frozen in glaciers and ice caps." From the 30 mL of water, I would pour out another 15 mL, and to what was remaining in the second container, I would add a piece of ice. "This represents the fresh, unfrozen water on our planet," I would say, pointing to the un-iced 15 mLs. "This is the water that naturally would be available for humans to use," I would say, pointing to the little bit that was my final 15 mLs. "The sad truth though, is that almost half of this water is polluted beyond use. Without the infrastructure to clean it up, we have this much water to use," and at this point I would pour a mere 7 mL of water out of the final cup and into a bucket.
We use water for almost everything we do. We cook with it, wash with it, bathe in it, drink it. Water is absolutely essential to life. By essential, I mean that over 50% of our human bodies are pure water. In fact, a person without water will die long than one deprived of food. So if our resources are limited, as we have just demonstrated, it would only follow that we should be adamant about protecting the resources that we do have. But we don't! Over half of the water that is available to us (water that is both fresh and unfrozen) is polluted. With technology, we have been able to pump water to the surface from the water table underground, but over pumping has caused a great amount of sediment to enter the water table and it has allowed for salt water to enter into otherwise freshwater systems that have been emptied out. The only other solution lies right at our fingertips: conservation. Conservation right in our own homes and everyday lives.
Concepts such as shortening showers and fixing leaky pipes seem obvious enough, but there are many less known ways to save water that can subtract gallons seemingly overnight. Watering your lawn and gardens is necessary if you want to keep things looking nice, but watering in the heat of the afternoon isn't going to do much good. The water will evaporate before the plants have a chance to soak it in. Watering in the evening or very early morning is a better idea. An even more earth-conscious approach would be to choose plants that are native to the environment of your area. These plants will be naturally adapted to the water availability there and will require significantly less watering from an unnatural source. Also, don't over-fertilize your lawn. This will cause the plants to become "thirsty" requiring much more water to keep them alive.
If you have a garden, think about trying to catch rainwater off of your roof or the garden shed to use for watering the plants. Putting a piece of screening over the top of a bucket can even keep leaves and sticks out for you, while catching the water that you can use later on. When I was in Arkansas, some super-savvy volunteers even fashioned a spigot on the lower bit of the bucket so that we didn't have to scoop the water out, but rather could pour it from the bottom. I've also known of several people that would save the water from water glasses that their guests had finished with and would later use it to water their indoor plants.
Installing low-flow toilets, faucets, and showerheads may be a bit of an investment at first, but these technologies will quickly pay for themselves and the water that they save is quite significant. Turning off the faucet is another amazingly simple way to cut gallons. While brushing your teeth, sudsing up with soap, or even gurgling with mouthwash, the water does not need to be running. Turning off the faucet, even for a few brief seconds while you finish what you are doing can save enormous amounts over time.
It's important to remember that no idea is too small. When using water as much as we humans do, even small acts will add up over time. And if we are all being water-conscious together, they will add up faster than you might think. This precious resource is one to be cherished and not taken advantage of, because while it will always be on our planet, it may not always be in a form that we can use it. Ultimately, what is at stake here is a great giver of life for people across the globe. Drip, drip, let's get that faucet fixed.

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