Becoming Mindful about Water
Insights from the Sustainability Institute
“Water is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” – Henry David Thoreau
Water has always been front of mind at the Sustainability Institute and in the Lynedoch Eco-Village where we are based, given the long standing water scarcity in the region. We have learnt a lot over the past two decades through experimenting and piloting approaches for water conservation – something most Capetonians are now acutely aware of as well.
While we’re relieved that Day Zero will most likely not reach us in 2018, we need to think well beyond it if we want to ensure the resilience of communities, and the supporting ecosystems which make life possible. With growing population numbers placing greater strain on increasingly stressed available resources, we need to recognize that we are now living in a radically different water reality. Recognising that water is essential to our very existence calls for innovation beyond technical savings and quick fixes, and in this article, we share some of what we have learnt in our journey towards a more water secure, and water respectful, future.
The first step to changing your behaviour is to notice it. Being mindful of water is easy. It simply means paying attention to your everyday actions that involve water – not just clean water, but also recycled or grey water. It’s usually really hard to break or change a habit, and that’s why we ask everyone who spends as little as a morning or as long as a lifetime at Lynedoch, to be mindful of how they use water.
Before automatically turning on the tap, think whether you could avoid it. Alternatives such as waterless hand sanitiser have lightened our water dependence considerably. It’s just about breaking the habit and continuously reminding each other to do the same. We removed the handles from many of our taps and added mist sprayers to the limited ones that remain operational.
Reuse the same litre of water as many times as you can
When the initial designs for the Eco-Village were underway, it was important to establish a waste management system that would be self-sustainable and reuse resources as much as possible. Our Biolytix and sand filter system treats water and sewerage and it ensures that 100% of our grey water is recycled and returned for use in the village. None of it leaves the village. This recycled water is used to water non-edible plants in the gardens and flush toilets. The water does have a bit of a smell, but we’ll take it above flushing drinking water down our drains any day.
The approach is simple. Use every litre of water, not only once or twice, but as many times as you possibly can. There are many ways to extend the life of one litre of water, you just have to think a little bit further.
Around mid-2017 we realised that more can still be done to save water, so we installed one of Cape Town’s first female waterless urinals. Women are asked to dispose of the toilet paper in a bin beside the toilet and spray a fresh eucalyptus mixture in the basin after use. It’s been working well so far and students often choose this cubicle above the others. It is a relief not to be dependent on water in the bathroom and it gives an entirely new perspective on how used to a particular sanitation system we’ve become. In fact, there are many waterless sanitation options available – including waterless urinals and composting toilets – that would be much more appropriate for water-stressed regions globally.
A call to us all
We live in complex times. In Cape Town, we are a diverse group of people sharing a city and all of us have different stories and circumstances. All of us have reasons why we individually feel we need all the water we believe we do. Yet, every time we choose to make a water-conscious choice, we’re helping the entire city to be more water-resilient. It’s easy to disregard a small, individual contribution to a citywide issue, but it’s vital we start paying attention and start living water-respectful lives.
Moving beyond blame
While many people are unhappy about the way in which the City of Cape Town is handling the crisis, we prefer to focus on the resource itself. The City doesn’t consist of a government alone, it consists of a projected 4.5 million people. At the end of the day, the fact remains we have to radically shift our mindsets and behaviours with regards to water.
In mid-January, nearly 60% of Cape Town residents were still ignoring pleas to save water. At the same time people are stockpiling store-bought water in a panic. Perhaps investing our energy in finding ways we can make long-term changes in our homes and businesses is better than using it to criticise.
Namibia, a country with much less water than South Africa, has been purifying its sewage water since the 1960s and they remain the only country in the world to do so. This is the type of long-term adjustments we’d love to see, not only on national level, but in homes and business too.
A larger shift
While nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5% of it is fresh. According to National Geographic, just 1% of our freshwater is easily accessible, with much of it trapped in glaciers and snowfields. Essentially, a mere 0.007% of the planet's water is available to fuel and feed its people. Sadly, we don’t value this precious resource the way we should. The University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center estimates that 60% to 65% of the water that goes down a home's drain has the potential to be reused.
To add to the challenge, humanity’s water demand is increasing rapidly. According to a United Nations report, about 500 million people live in areas where water consumption exceeds the locally renewable water resources by a factor of two. In Africa, current water management systems cannot keep up with the growing demand.
We know our approach here at Lynedoch to water and sanitation is the exception to the norm, but it seems Cape Town has become an exception city. We have become used to a system where a precious resource is used simply to transport waste from one location to the next and this approach persists in city planning as the world becomes increasingly urbanised and more demanding of water. But the Sustainability Institute and Lynedoch Eco-Village are proof that alternatives exist and work.
Cape Town will always remain a water scarce city within a water scarce province. It’s unlikely we’ll see a time in the near future when we don’t have water restrictions, as the Western Cape is predicted to become only hotter and drier in the future. While we should do everything in our power to survive this year, we should also think beyond Day Zero.
What else can you do to live a water-respectful life and to operate a water-resilient business?
Consider joining one of our executive short courses – such as Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services, Sustainable Cities, Sustainable Food Systems or Corporate Governance and Sustainable Enterprise – to learn more about integrating water stewardship across your practices, or speak to us about our research consulting across these areas of expertise. You can also read more about a recent study conducted by two of our researchers, Prof Josephine Musango and Paul Currie on the Day Zero plans for the City of Cape Town.