No working taps: living on rainwater

I'd anticipated that to truly appreciate running water I'd need to live without it. Pumla Lwana lives in the Eastern Cape village of All Saint's. Her home has a sink, bath and toilet but all the taps are dry. In Pumla's house rainfall is the sole water source and so taking a bucket to the tank connected to the roof's drainpipes is what I had to do to wash, make a cup of tea and flush the toilet. During my stay I quickly began to value water but was surprised at how easily I forgot the lesson after leaving.

I started a science experiment without, at first, even realising.  My self-imposed assignment was "Determine which is the most water efficient method of flushing a toilet with a bucket." Each time I used the toilet I'd progress the experiment, starting with a slow and steady pouring technique and moving to inundating the pan with a once off rapid surge. There's probably a masters student somewhere who'll have done this too, plotting the results on a graph.

Pumla with mutual friends Ronald, Gill and Enoch  (L to R)

Pumla with mutual friends Ronald, Gill and Enoch  (L to R)

There was only space in the bathroom for a few buckets and there were six of us living in the house. If all six got up in the night, I figured, someone would need to go outside to get more water. I wasn't overwhelmingly excited about that being me. Lessening my odds on undertaking the night-time trek meant using the least water possible. If I must use the bathroom in the night I'd rather crawl back into bed afterwards than hunt for a torch and shoes and stand in mud slowly filling a bucket on a cold dark night. I'd learned to value water, even if it was partly due to torpid idleness rather than a more noble environmental concern.

I asked Pumla what would happen if there was an extended dry season and her tank dried up "we'd have no water" she responded, appearing more than just a little perplexed by a question with such a glaringly obvious answer.  My brief period of needing to collect rainwater was, fortunately for me, only a thought provoking experience rather than a constant chore. After I left Pumla I enjoyed a hot shower at my next destination and I didn't spend much time thinking where the water came from, the height of the reservoir or my overall impact. 

Around 40% of South African households do not even possess a flushing toilet. Most alarmingly 5.2% of South African households do not have a toilet of any kind at all.  Close to 1.5 million people in the Eastern Cape lack piped water and I guess they don’t take the resource for granted. Pumla doesn't waste water and only needs to knock on the side of her tank to know how much she has left.

Two issues need action. The first is clear, resolving South Africa’s appalling inequalities by speeding up the provision of basic services. The second is creating a culture where, for those of us with adequate water provision, we don't take them for granted and waste it. 

South Africa is considered "water-scarce" and is rated as the 29th driest of 193 countries. Water is our scarcest natural resource, 55% of our wetlands have been lost due to agriculture, forestry, housing, dam-building or other human impacts and it's thought that if the current supply and demand rates continue our water resources will be fully used by 2025.

Pumla's neighbours balance buckets of water on their heads

Pumla's neighbours balance buckets of water on their heads

It's easy to value water when you can see your access is limited by looking at a tank outside your kitchen door, harder when you rely on municipal provision and the taps, at the moment, flow. 

At the end of this road trip, Too Much Too Many will be turned into a book where I'll try to present some solutions for the population and consumption growth issues raised en route. At Pumla's house I was obsessively conscious of my water use, within six hours of leaving I was luxuriating in an excessively long shower. Lesson learned. Lesson forgotten.  I need suggestions on how we can generate a culture of valuing resources and being more mindful of our own personal role in consuming them. Please contact me via the website; it's something which needs to be included in the book. At the moment I have no idea how to make us see ourselves and our impacts as part of a bigger picture when it comes to things like turning on a tap.