Conserve water, conserve life

IF you make a list of the things we take for granted in Britain in the 21st century, water would probably be in the top three. Indeed, it might be top of the list. So when you haven’t got it, the lack of it hits you like an express train.

In two different ways in the last few weeks we have experienced water problems, making us think very hard about how we use and abuse water, following as it did so soon after our visit to California and the reality of the spreading dust bowl in the once-fertile central valley.

While we were in Scotland, we stayed for five days at a Landmark Trust property on the edge of Galloway Forest. The little lodge draws its water from the local streams, but tests by the council’s environmental health officials found excessive levels of metal in the water so we could not drink it, cook with it or clean our teeth with it. The trust provided quantities of bottled Scottish spring water and we took great care how much water we used. (Mind you, we could still bath and flush the toilet, so this was hardly deprivation. Just enough restriction to make us think).

At home we had problems with the drains – over the bank holiday weekend. Of course it would be the bank holiday when most of the so-called 24/7 services either don’t answer their phones or don’t call back even after you have told them that your drains are backing up into the garden and you daren’t flush the loo or even let the water out after washing up. Fortunately an excellent local builder not only did answered the phone – on bank holiday Monday – but came round straight away, armed with the necessary rods. So once again we have flushing loos, properly emptying sinks, basins that don’t glug when you run the tap and I don’t have an excuse for not finishing the washing up.

Five days without running water to drink and cook with, less than 24 hours not flushing the loo – by comparison with the water shortages experienced daily by people all over the world, these are not hardships. But they give us pause for thought, briefly interrupting the flow of other preoccupations by reminding us that water is an absolute essential for every aspect of life, from quenching thirst to maintaining health.

While I was thinking about water I looked at a few websites and in among the adverts for everything from sprinklers to carbonated bottle water, I found some water conservation slogans. The title of this article is one. Others are:

You never know the worth of water until the well runs dry.
Save water, and it will save you.
Don’t let life slip down the drain.
How many drops make up an ocean? Conserve water; every drop counts.
If we don’t learn to conserve, we’ll all be fish out of water.
A drop of water is worth more than a sack of gold to a thirsty man.

All true and if some of them are cliches that’s no bad thing, because most cliches are truisms – they begin from a basic truth. The last one in this particular list is one that we can all take to heart, whether we have a 2,000 acre arable farm in East Anglia on a pocket-handkerchief walled garden: Water smarter!

This is simple advice – think about how you water, when you water and how much you water. Remember that a well-dug, well-manured vegetable patch will retain water below ground for much longer than you think, but herbs in attractive terracotta pots on the patio or seedlings in trays in the greenhouse will be vulnerable to drying out and scorching very quickly in direct sunlight, long before there is much heat in the sun. We water our greenhouse, where we grow tomatoes, lettuces and our runner bean seedlings, from a watering can filled from a rainwater butt. Similarly if it gets hot and dry, we water carefully onto the troughs and pots in which we grow our herbs and salads. The front garden has to look after itself because we grow hardy shrubs (and more ground elder than you can imagine!) and they seem to survive –so does the ground elder. (As an aside, I think ground elder is probably distantly related to the cockroach and like its horrible insect cousin will probably survive global warming, nuclear winters and the final apocalypse. Sometimes when its ultra-resilient green-ness really gets me down, I imagine the Four Horsemen riding backwards and forwards over it and it just springs back up like Jason and the dragon’s teeth. Our friend cookery writer Simone Sekers says ground elder is OK in salads, but not from a front garden where it breathes in pollution from gear-changing vehicles and is peed on by passing dogs.) But I digress.

Water smarter, please. Don’t take the water from your tap and the water in your loo for granted. You can still have a bath, but in a drought you can reuse bathwater to water the garden (as long as you haven’t filled it with oils and chemically-based hair and body products). You don’t have to clean your teeth without water, but you don’t have to run several gallons of clean water down the plughole while you contemplate your molars and the miracles of the universe. We ought all of us to drink more water because it is good for us in all manner of ways, but we shouldn’t throw it away without thinking.

I have a personal crusade (in my head) against golf courses – not Scotland’s lovely links courses, where there is enough rain and the terrain is demanding so that it is a proper challenge for the golfer, but those flat, impossibly verdant courses that are spreading across America’s drought-stricken south west or the deserts of the Arabian Gulf. The amount of water required to maintain that vivid, velvet greenery is beyond imagining. It ought to be a crime.

As you run the water for your bath or the washing up, remember the farmers struggling to grow crops to feed us, from the sub-Saharan Sahel to California, the women who walk miles every day in the burning African sunshine to get water from a well for their families, the refugees from the horrors of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts stranded on bleak mountainsides with no water, safe or otherwise … and those tragic boatloads of migrants stranded in the Mediterranee or the seas off Thailand and Malaya – surrounded by water, water everywhere with not a drop to drink.
Fanny Charles