Water is something many of us in the developed world take for granted. We are used to water on tap and don't always think as much as we should about how and where it is used.
Fresh water is one of the most important natural resources on our planet. An integrated sustainable approach needs to consider the world's water cycle, and think about how freshwater is used and conserved. Fresh water accounts for only 3% of all water on earth, and most of the fresh water on our planet is not available for use since it is locked away in various forms of storage, such as ice and glaciers, or as groundwater. Freshwater is already a scarce resource in many parts of the world, and is becoming an increasing concern on more parts of the globe. It is likely that fresh water availability is one of the key issues that humanity will face moving forward.
Sustainable approaches to all facets of life must take into account the pathways of freshwater. Those designing sustainable systems must think about how freshwater can be conserved and utilised effectively, how land can be managed to maintain the integrity of the water cycle and channel water to where it is needed, and how polluted water can best be reclaimed. In order to design effective, enduring homes and systems, the precious resource of fresh water must always be at the forefront of our minds.
Freshwater Shortage & Misuse
Many parts of our planet are already facing crises of freshwater. Largely, the problems are caused by mankind. Dry land areas are made even more arid by deforestation and poor land management. Towns and cities, surrounded by polluting industry and agriculture, face water pollution on an unprecedented scale, which has already created an absolute shortage of fresh water for many urban residents.
Land chosen for agriculture and given over to the growing of food is not always suitable, due to a lack of fresh water sources, and so fresh water is squandered in perpetuating non-sustainable farming systems. Planting strategies all too often do not take into account the conservation or effective management of fresh water. Likewise, industrial processes use copious amounts of fresh water without consideration for how that water use could be reduced, nor with any thought for how that fresh water could be recycled or purified before being released back to the environment.
As individuals and households, we too share the blame for the world's freshwater crisis. We splash water around, often using it without thought – use inappropriate appliances and waste water on lawns and car washes. All too often, in developed countries, we spare little thought for the fresh water cycle on our planet, and take it for granted that fresh water will always be readily available from our taps.
But it is important to remember that as individuals and households, we all have a share of the blame for wider misuse of fresh water on our planet. Each and every item that we buy – from food to the clothes on our backs – carries a water cost. Conserving water, therefore, is not just about using water wisely within our own homes. It is also about thinking carefully about the water used for all the things we buy.
Conserving Water at Home
The good news is that the perpetuating cycles of our planet mean that there will always be enough fresh water to meet our needs. But only if we end the cycles of abuse and misuse and begin to store and use water in a sustainable way.
Conserving water within the home means thinking, first and foremost, about where our water comes from. Making full use of the rainwater that falls on our properties is one of the first and most important things to think about when trying to live a more sustainable way of life.
When you think about catching rainwater, the first thing that springs to mind is likely to be a barrel or butt attached to the guttering on your home. And this is one key way to catch rainwater on your property. You can also catch the water that falls on other structures on your land – such as a garage, shed or greenhouse, for example.
But it is important to understand that if you have a garden, there are other ways to catch rainwater that are just as important. Water is not just caught and stored on our properties in containers and tanks. It is also, crucially, captured in the plants and soil themselves.
Clever selection of plant life in a sustainable garden system can help to conserve and store fresh water, as well as helping to perpetuate the water cycle. And caring for the soil can also play an important part in water conservation on your property.
Sustainable gardening practices such as planting trees, adding trace elements and organic matter through mulching and organic feeds, non-destructive food production practices of well-managed natural yields, sparse grazing and conservation farming can increase the ability of the soils to hold and infiltrate water by up to 70-85%.
Managing the Flow of Water in Your Garden
Managing water pathways in a sustainable garden often involves more than just planting trees and other vegetation, and managing and caring for the soil. Such systems often incorporate earthworks, which can store, slow, or direct water throughout a site.
Water can be stored by earthworks such as ponds, pools, dams and in-ground storage tanks. Swales are another important element in permaculture design. Swales are used to slow the flow of water on a site and to collect and hold water on a given piece of land. Irrigation layouts, either channels, or sophisticated land-forming techniques such as those used for flood or sheet irrigation.
In sustainable, organic gardening, an understanding of the water cycle, and how water moves through a landscape, is used to select sites for food production and to manage water to allow natural systems to flourish for human benefit. Creating features such as rain gardens can reduce run-off, and reduce water pollution in local waterways.
The more we can catch and make use of the natural rainfall that falls on our properties, the less reliant we will be on mains supplies.
Managing Waste Water
Another way that we can reduce our use of mains water is by managing waste water in a more sustainable way. Grey water from sinks, showers and tubs can be used to flush toilets (where water closets are used). It can also be channelled into a garden and be used in food production.
it is possible for natural, biological systems to be used to treat and filter water for re-use. By using bacteria, algae, plants and other natural components, waste water can be treated in order to be safely released to streams or other watercourses, giving other yields in the process.
Using Less Water Inside a Home
To reduce your water use at home, you should:
- Install low-flow faucets and shower heads.
- Use low-flow toilets, or, better yet, move away from water toilets altogether and choose composting toilets instead.
- Shower and bathe less, and be more conscientious about how much water you use to wash.
- Wash clothes only when necessary, and not be over-zealous about washing textiles.
- Turn off taps when brushing or shaving.
Being Aware of the Water Cost of the Things You Buy
Even more important than the habitual changes mentioned above are the changes we should make relating to the things we buy. We should all be:
- Refusing (to contribute to environmental destruction and water waste).
- Reducing (the amount we buy in general).
- Reusing (all we own for as long as possible and making use of things others throw away).
The wiser we are about what we buy, and when, the more water we can conserve. For example, we can buy organic produce grown in a water-wise way. And we can switch away from water-costly crops like cotton. We should choose organic cotton instead, which has a much lower water footprint. Or other low-water use natural fibre crops like hemp instead.
Carbon cost is just one of the costs associated with the things we buy. Water use should also be a key consideration.
If you do just one thing when it comes to conserving water, paying more attention to the water costs of the things you buy should be it. This wiser consumption should be a top priority. The above is just a starting point however. The more you learn about water and its pathways on planet Earth and on your own property, the more ways you will find to conserve water wherever you live.