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No Free Lunch

Are you wasting water?

The water crisis gripping Metro Manila should be a wake-up call for all of us to mind the way we use — and waste — water in our daily lives. In times of plenty, we think nothing of it, but times of scarcity and deprivation make us more mindful of how we misuse and overuse what is certainly our most vital, yet most undervalued, resource.

How do we waste water? There are so many ways, obvious or otherwise. The most obvious (yet often ignored) ones include keeping the water flowing while brushing our teeth, or the shower on while soaping or shampooing, rather than shutting off and turning on only as needed. Much valuable potable water is wasted in restaurants and home dining tables, left unconsumed in glasses, water jugs or bottles, only to be thrown away. Those with cars throw away much water by washing them down with a freely flowing hose, keeping it on even while scrubbing the tires or cleaning specific parts. In homes or public buildings, faucets or water pipes leaking seemingly negligible drops can throw away gallons of water in one day.

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Among the worst wastages of water, yet mostly ignored, occurs in almost every home or building: in leaking or malfunctioning toilets. Gallons of water are lost when the rubber flappers in the toilet tank, either because of wear or deformity, are letting water seep through continuously. Wastage is far worse when the toilet is left with water flowing through continuously because the automatic shutoff mechanism in the tank is malfunctioning, or when the flapper somehow remained up with the last flusher. These are an almost everyday occurrence, and I’ve often called attention to it when I could find someone to report it to. I once saw a sign in a public restroom requesting that such leaks be reported to the building management, and I quietly applauded them for that small but important gesture. But I’ve never seen any other such sign elsewhere since.

I’m writing this while in California, a state that imposed strict regulations on water use between 2014 and 2017. It was made unlawful to irrigate lawns to the point that water runs off onto the sidewalk, street or adjacent property. Hosing off a driveway or sidewalk with potable water is also not allowed. One cannot wash a motor vehicle with a hose unless it has a shut-off nozzle. Ornamental fountains that do not recirculate the water are prohibited. Hotels and motels must have signs in their rooms notifying guests that they have the option of re-using their towels and sheets, hence help reduce unnecessary use of water (and detergent) in laundering them. Now in one of its driest winters in modern history, California’s water regulators are considering making these and other water-use restrictions permanent, and impose fines of up to $500 per violation.

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We have so far referred to direct use of water, but the bulk of our water use is actually indirect, with household water consumption (for bathing, toilets, watering garden, etc.) estimated to contribute only 4 percent of our water footprint. Food consumption accounts for about 70 percent, and our food choices matter in determining our water footprint. For example, producing a kilo of beef uses up about 16,000 liters of water, whereas the same amount of vegetables need about 300 liters. Reducing meat intake is thus not only good for the health, but also helps save water!

The next biggest driver of water consumption is power, accounting for about 15 percent of our water footprint. Here again, power choice matters. Coal plants consume three times more than gas plants, 10 times more than geothermal, and 100 times more than solar. Our clothing also consume large amounts of water: it takes 10,000 liters to produce a cotton T-shirt and a pair of jeans, not to mention laundering them through their lifetimes. Likewise, transportation is a big water user. It takes 70 liters of water to produce 1 liter of gasoline, and 120,000 liters to produce a small car—again, not to mention washing it. (https://waterfootprint.org gives more such data)

All told, there’s so much we can do to save water, while helping mitigate climate change and even improve our health as we do so—a true win-win-win indeed.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch, water conservation, water shortage
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