March 22nd is World Water Day, and with South Africa in the midst of a horrific drought following three years of low rainfall, and predictions that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, this is one “day” that gets more significant every year.
I have lived in some of Europe’s driest cities, which are slowly shrivelling into deserts. I have visited some of the most arid regions on the planet, and learned how plants, animals and people manage to survive in places with virtually no rainfall. And I have lived in countries where the tap water is not drinkable. All this makes me just a tiny bit more appreciative of England’s notoriously soggy climate. Buying expensive mineral water packaged in plastic seems utterly insane when you realise what a privilege it is to be able to drink straight from the tap.
Surprisingly, it’s not in the driest regions that I have experienced the worst water shortages. It’s in some of the wettest – Caribbean islands and equatorial rainforests. Water is a political issue as much as it is a geographical one.
In Bocas del Toro, a cluster of sweaty little Caribbean islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast, the tap water wasn’t just undrinkable, it was routinely reported to have little creatures swimming in it. That’s when it was available, of course; the supplies would be shut off at least once a day. On these rain-drenched islands, surrounded by ocean, fresh water was hard to come by; they were barely a meter above sea level. I was extraordinarily lucky to live in a house with a rainwater catchment system, enormous water butts and excellent filtration, which not only meant my water was not cut off, but my neighbours and I were the only people in the archipelago who could drink from the tap. Still, seeing our water stored in these giant plastic ‘bottles’, with the threat of a dry spell – or a disastrous leak – made us that bit more aware of our consumption. Showers were short despite the tropical heat, and toilets were flushed using the “if it’s yellow…” theory.
In Esmeraldas, too, one of Ecuador’s poorest – and soggiest – regions, the water was routinely cut. When it flowed, we took buckets and jugs and filled a large, grimy, plastic water butt in the bathroom. This was what we washed with, with a sponge and soap. This water definitely had creatures swimming in it. I brushed my teeth with bottled water. It was a relief to head into the jungle; there was no running water there at all, but at least there was a crystal clear river, whose supply was never halted, and in which I could wash and swim and launder my clothes.
In Esmeraldas, the river is road and laundry room, bath and swimming pool.
In Havana, water had to be pumped into the houses using incredible 1950s contraptions. Unfortunately, I did not find this out until the final evening of my two-week trip, after multiple long showers and liberal toilet flushing. I visited right at the end of the dry season, and my generous hosts had been going without so that I was not ‘inconvenienced’. As it rained on the last day, telephones echoed around the streets, as neighbours rand around to let each other know that they could pump again.
But I’ve also visited some brilliant tourism projects around the world which are doing their best to save water, and educate their guests to do the same. Some in arid regions some in places with little water infrastructure, and others in places with plenty of water – but with conscientious owners who choose to lead by example and understand that we cannot take even this most precious resource for granted.
1. The Black Sheep Inn, Ecuador
Ecuador’s famous ecolodge sits on a mountainside; on land which was bough cheap thanks to its vertiginous angle. But the Permaculture-loving owners of this place saw this as an opportunity. They stored water at the top of the site and therefore did away with pumps; they also situated the laundry room up there, and the wastewater would filter back down, irrigating the tree nursery that allowed them to reforest sections of the mountain, This is also the only time I have ever had a meeting in a toilet. The site’s then owner, Andres Hammerman, was showing me around, and we ended up hanging out in the pretty greenhouse that sheltered one of the site’s composting loos. Not only did the loo require no water and create no sewage, but it was also the first time in several months that I’d been able to put toilet paper down the toilet – a memorable event. And the sink in the greenhouse had a pipe that flowed straight into a planter. Permaculture at its best…
2. Damaraland Camp, Namibia
If anywhere needs to conserve water, it’s Namibia. Home to both the Namib and the Kalahari Deserts, this is a country whose species can live without rain or groundwater, such as the oryx which can exist simply on the moisture within its food, and the beetle that captures dew on its body, then does a dance to shake it into its mouth.
Humans are not quite so adaptable (with the exception of the native San, whose water-free lifestyle is something we may all soon need to learn from). But Damaraland Camp, staffed almost entirely by local community members, did its best to encourage guests to be respectful of their dry surroundings. This included leaving a bucket in the shower, which would collect excess water to then be used to clean the lodge. Smart, but simple.
3. GeoLodges, Uganda
The best way to get people to conserve something is to remind them that it is finite. At GeoLodges gorgeous lodge beside Murchison Falls National Park, I had to inform staff at which time I would like to take a shower. My shower was outdoors, and consisted of a black bag attached to a shower head with a valve on it. At the set time, a staff member would come and fill the bag with hot water. I was so concerned about running out mid-shampoo that I never ended up using it all; I am sure the water was reused elsewhere. But the most memorable thing about that shower, by a long way, were the vervet monkeys that would jump over it while I washed.
4. Meet Me There African Home Lodge, Ghana
Meet Me There tackles that most unglamorous of all issues: toilets. The lodge has a charitable arm which builds composting toilets for families in the surrounding villages, on the understanding that the families raise part of the required funds.
In rural Ghana, the only running water is from a communal tap between a cluster of houses, so constructing conventional toilets would be difficult. They would also create wastewater which would need to be treated, and with the villages just a few hundred metres from the sea, the chances are that raw sewage would just get pumped out there – particularly disastrous considering these are fishing communities. So composting toilets solve that, as well as offering privacy, reducing diseases, and keeping women and girls safe as they don’t have to wander off into the darkness each night to relieve themselves. And of course, they provide compost for crops.
The lodge, too, only has composting toilets, so guests can see how clean, pleasant and easy to use they are. I’ve always wondered why they are not used more widely. Back to World Water Day, an older toilet will use around 13 litres per flush. Even the most efficient, “Ultra Low Flush” model now will use 6 litres. Compared to Ghana’s alternative, that doesn’t sound very low at all.