Last week an electrical fault in my flat left me without hot water for a few days. At first, I shrugged it off as a cold shower was unpleasant, and didn’t leave me feeling as clean as I would after a hot one, but this lefty me increasingly annoyed. As the week went on, however, my attitude changed. Washing the dishes with cold-water was difficult and time-consuming. So too was the work-around boiling water manually as both my kettle and microwave are quite small. They were inadequate substitutes for a broken water heater designed for 4 people.
I noticed though that without my heater, I was consuming much less water. Showers were uncomfortable and quick and the water used washing dishes was kept to a bare minimum, because of the time that would be used getting more. Then, in the middle of the week, the electrician called and fixed the heater. I had hot water again, more than I could ever want.
After that, however, I began to think, in terms of water/carbon footprints, embedded emissions, etc. What had been the difference, in those terms, between the days without my heater and any average day in my life? The difference seemed staggering, the average shower uses 3.5 litres per minute, and with cold water I’d gone from 5 minute to 1 minute showers. The amount saved, 15 litres, was already one third of the water poverty threshold. In the bigger picture, this was negligible; not even 10% of the daily average per capita usage in Ireland. But this was where I could exert control over my water usage, and begin to approximate sustainable levels of consumption. I can’t really know the specific environmental footprints of everything I consume, and while I have time to boil the kettle, I don’t have time to do an in-depth investigation of every different brand of bread.
In the broader picture, the change I effect in my own habits is marginal: most of the (unsustainable amount) of water I use is embedded in the products I use - 1,000 litres used in the production of a carton of milk, 1,300 litres in the production of a loaf of bread etc. Maybe my gesture is partially an evasion. The real problems we face with water are ones of distribution. It doesn’t matter if I use 120 litres or 180. What matters at this moment is that I will have access to this amount regardless. Of course I cannot change this on my own, but through my approximations of sustainable living, a proportion of the finite amount of usable water on the planet (my savings counted for roughly a third of what a person needs at minimum every day) is “freed up”. If this was done on a broad scale, it would be half the battle in constructing a global society that manages, distributes, and uses water sustainably.