Running low on H2O

Of all the water on this planet, 97.5% is in the oceans, two percent is frozen, three quarters of a percent is in the ground as groundwater, and a mere quarter of a percent makes up our surface water. The rest is in clouds and living organisms. So there is not much water available for us to live on.

All 6 billion of us humans, all the trees, animals, and the rest of life that make up the biosphere and keep natural biological functions working have to make do from the less than one percent that is available.

But, just like everything else, we use water seriously wastefully. In South Africa we face particular challenges: we live in a hot, dry climate with a suckingly massive evaporation rate, more than twice as much as the rainfall overall. We constantly face a water deficit. Beside this we have tapped into almost every major available water resource and it is up to us to save what precious little we have left. Damming rivers prevents wetlands, river systems – the ecosystem as a whole – from functioning properly.
So it’s not just a matter of our survival or the survival of the industrial sector; water is a major part of the big picture.
And just what can we do to change the way we impact on the big picture?

Well, quite a bit really.

For a start we can do sane things and not have a kikuyu lawn that wallows in water, plant plants that don’t need watering, reuse what we can in the home and garden and harvest rain water through roof tanks. Rainwater always makes better tea anyway, as long as you have a diverter for the first 50 litres or so of runoff. But we must also look at the fundamental waste of water that modern cities use.

Ever since Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet in England, we have been pouring good after bad, right down the sewer. And its not even as if our bodily wastes are that bad. After all, dust to dust, ashes to ashes and all that. Manure to plants and so on.
Why do you think there are all of those pictures of Chinese people carrying two buckets, one on either end of a pole? It wasn’t because they were always getting flooded out, or irrigating fields. Farmers selling produce at market would make sure that they went back home with the fertiliser to feed their next crop.

And what was the fertiliser? You guessed it.

Humanure. Maybe that’s why Chinese food is so tasty. Seriously though, we have ways and means to make our waste safe. It’s called a composting toilet and we make some of the best right here in South Africa. For five grand you get a toilet, complete with seat, vent, the whole shooting match, that never needs one drop of water. In fact it works better without water. And after a year or two you dig out the end product and put it in your garden and it will make your plants grow like a Chinese cabbage.
Of course there are squeamish folk out there saying: “dude, what are you on about, how do you expect me to dig out what I poohed?”

Well, if you have ever planted a tree you will have been closer to pooh that was not even yours, it was from an animal: a pig, cow, horse, chicken, but not good old humanure. What you get out of composting toilets is what had fed your body and made you and it is in turn what you give back to nature. If you are really squeamish, you can get someone else to do it for you!

Seeing that residential use of water in South Africa accounts for around 15% percent of total water use – a lot more in the cities – and, given that toilets use about 30% of household water, South Africa would save about the equivalent of the Gariep Dam in water savings every year if we all used composting toilets. Lets ignore that about 3 meters of the Gariep will evaporate anyway every year, but hey, we are still ahead. So there’s one way to make a start.

All the rest of the water we use can be recycled into our gardens or vegetable patches, to wash cars or even to share a bath with someone else. It is entirely feasible: Dr Guy Preston, head of Working For Water, the chief alien-clearance man (begone you water-gobbling aliens!) uses 6000 litres of water a month for a suburban family in a suburban home, with a swimming pool. His pool is topped up by rainfall runoff, the garden is water-wise hardy indigenous, and water saving showerheads and toilets (no, he does not as yet have a composting toilet) keep his families water below to the cut-off for free water on average.
So his water is free. It can be done, and done in style too. Well done Guy!

Now, everyone else, copy Guy; okay?

At the moment we have an insane system where we collect water for hundreds of kilometers outside of cities (thousands in some cases in South Africa), then we use the water once, have a crap and effectively pollute perfectly good water. Then we pour phosphates down the drain. Well we don’t really know they are phosphates, we call them soap, but the reality is that soap is poison to the ecosystem.

Phosphates make an alkali solution, like soap. Remember those phosphorous experiments at school? I do, with our pleasantly lunatic teacher Duncan chucking huge chunks of phosphorous into the lab basin, causing a fizz and bang as we all ducked behind our desks. At the end of the fireworks and after the smoke had cleared, we measured the water and it was alkali, just like soap.

Anyway, I digress. Phosphorus is a disaster for water. It makes things grow and throws the biological balance all out of kilter. But again, there are alternatives. One can go phosphorous-free for a start. The Enchantrix range of cleaning agents is all phosphorous-free (as well as free of all of the other bad things). Then there is the Golden Products range, Ecosoft soaps, some low-phosphate house brands.
All of the big brands are bad.
Biologically activating destructors.

What happens when phosphorus builds up in the environment? It tends to concentrate in the watery realms – rivers, streams, wetlands, lakes and aquifers – and other aquatic environments and then causes a phenomenon known as eutrophication (U-trof-ee-kaish-un).

Sounds pretty cool but its not. It’s the de-oxygenation of water due to algal and plant plankton growth, and usually signals a virtual death knell for the ecosystem. This is why phosphorous and eutrophication are BAD. Biologically activating destructors.
Eutrophication occurs naturally but on much smaller scale than the events now being triggered by human intervention. This is because of high phosphorus soaps, nutrient loads (fertilisers – including phosphorus but also manure and other fertilisers) as well as from the impacts of outflows from water treatment plants and other point pollution.

It really is time for our big brands to clean up their act and remove all phosphates from their soaps and cleaning products. In fact, consider this the start of a concerted campaign to ban phosphates from soaps in South Africa for ever. And you dear readers are amongst the first activists, each in your own small way. Buy smart.

Phosphates are concentrated during the treatment of water in conventional sewage plants. When this wastewater is discharged it inevitably impacts on areas it is in contact with.
In many coastal areas, particularly Cape Town, we simply pump our untreated waste straight into the sea. Phosphate load in the sea is also bad. Pooh in the sea is worse.

We should not be wasting one drop of water in South Africa.
All of the water we use should be recycled and redirected toward either agricultural use or cleaned properly and reused for drinking. This has been done in Windhoek since the 1960s and now happens in many places around the world.
Another problem is that we have destroyed many of our wetland systems in South Africa. Wetlands are essential cleansers of our water. In order to restore the balance, we must see to it that all industries which generate water pollution as part of the manufacturing process use wetland based reclamation projects to cleanse the water before it is either reused or discharged. In this way we both rehabilitate wetlands and cleanse the water, taking responsibility for the full life-cycle.

This is of course a simplistic prescription but it is the principle that underlies it that is important. The value of wetlands is over R100, 000 per hectare per year in water saving, cleaning, ecosystem maintenance and the likes.

Surely business can write this account off against tax?
Environmental services are not free but they become part of business. Water is precious; we are water, every living contains water at some stage of its life. Were water readily available on Mars, there would probably be life there; bacteria and amoeba live on earth in similar extremes of temperature but generally rely on water to provide a stable environment.

Even on Earth, our fragile Gaia, our beautiful blue spaceship that whizzes around the sun at over 10 000 kilometers per hour, we do have water water everywhere but with only one percent available to drink. It is exclusively through the miracle of ecosystem distillation, otherwise known as the water cycle (evaporation, condensation as clouds, rain, snow, ice, hail and sleet growing to rivers, lakes re-entering the sea and evaporating again, so on ad infinitum) that we have any fresh water on this planet.

Water has a profound importance to every living thing on earth. Without we go the same way as Mars. Let’s do something about using it wisely. Together.