People use lots of water for drinking, cooking and washing but even more for producing things such as food, paper and cotton cloth. A water footprint is an indicator that looks at both the direct and indirect water use of a consumer or producer. The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business.
Broadly speaking, you can reduce your direct water footprint by:
installing water saving toilets;
applying a water-saving showerhead;
turning off the tap while brushing your teeth;
using less water in the garden; and
not disposing of medicines, paints or other pollutants down the sink.
The indirect water footprint of a consumer is generally much larger than the direct one. A consumer has basically two options to reduce his/her indirect water footprint.
One option is to substitute a consumer product that has a large water footprint by a different type of product that has a smaller water footprint. Examples including eating less meat or becoming completely vegetarian and drinking tea instead of coffee. Not wearing so much cotton and instead wearing clothes of artificial fibre saves a lot of water.
These approach have limitations, as many people won't just shift from meat-eating to vegetarianism and people like their coffee and cotton.
A second option is to stick to the same consumption pattern but to select the cotton, beef or coffee that has a relatively low water footprint or that has its footprint in an area that doesn’t have high water scarcity. This requires consumers to have proper information to make that choice. Since this information is generally not readily available, an important thing consumers can do now is demand product transparency from businesses as well as regulation from governments. When information is available on the impacts of a certain article on the water system, consumers can make conscious choices about what they buy.
Tips for Saving Water at Home
Install a foot tap. Rather than using the traditional, ubiquitous twist-knob taps, you can install a foot pedal which you press to control the flow of water. Using such pedals helps reduce water consumption by as much as 50 percent.
Attach a shower head to tap fittings. Installing a shower head on your tap may seem like an outrageous notion but trust us on this one. It is a common misconception that high-pressure, high-volume water is needed to clean tough dirt and grease from dishes. In fact, what is more effective is using a wide water spray rather than heavy water volume which of course can be achieved through the use of a shower head. Fitting a water-saving showerhead to your tap will still give you enough water and spray to clean effectively, meaning you use less water even when washing the tough stuff.
Bring a bucket. A peek into any bathroom in Australia provides a handy water-saving tip from the inhabitants of the driest continent on the planet - place a bucket in the shower. These buckets are placed under the showerhead to catch all that excess water that normally goes down the drain while you wait for the water to heat up.
Treat your wastewater at home
Generally speaking, all that water that trickles down the drain after you use it can actually be a boon for the garden. Commonly referred to as wastewater (or blackwater and greywater), leftover water from the bathroom, kitchen and laundry is mixed with detergents, oil and dirt and is generally not appropriate for use in the garden in its waste form. However, with proper filtering and treatment it can be highly beneficial for crops.
In a broad sense, blackwater can defined as wastewater that originates from toilets and bathrooms containing human waste and urine. This water is highly contaminated and should be treated as sewage. Greywater is wastewater from sinks, washing machines, showers and bathtubs. It contains far less contaminants than blackwater and can be treated via various at-home filtration techniques for use in your backyard. Exact defintions of blackwater and greywater vary and it would be worthwhile checking with your local authority to determine exactly which categories your wastewater falls into.
Sound complicated? It’s actually simpler than you think and your set up doesn’t need to be high-tech. Researchers in Kolkata tested a variety of water filtration systems and found that even the most poorly performing ones still treated water to levels acceptable for use in the garden, while the video below (taken in Bangalore) breaks it down very neatly.
The team over at Greywater Action have detailed guides for installing easy-to-manage greywater systems. Check here for a full rundown.
For a more detailed breakdown of pros and cons of various filtration systems check Civil Engineering Portal’s article on the topic here.
One last final tip: do not store greywater for more than 24 hours. The compounds it contains will start to break down after this period and can cause unpleasant odours.
Use less water when cleaning
Using biodegradable cleaners (i.e. natural items such as lemons and vinegar or cleaning agents manufactured under eco-friendly conditions) as well as phosphate-free detergents also helps to reduce water consumption and is less harmful to the environment. Using them to clean uses less water than chemically-laden alternatives.
One reason for this is the inclusion of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) in many conventional cleaning products. SLS is generally used as a foaming agent, it’s foaming properties triggered when coming into contact with water. Without water, using these cleaning gels and creams would be one sticky mess—the more water that’s used, the more foam that's produced. These agents also need to be washed off any surface or item after use considering the harmful impact they have on human health. Compare this to using vinegar, which requires no water to offset it’s disinfecting properties and doesn’t need to be washed off a surface or item after it’s been used to clean (check out this site for oodles of recommendations for cleaning with vinegar).
The local tried-and-true method of using soapnuts for washing is an oldie but a goodie. A little water is required to get going, but it’s still less than is required for conventional cleaners.
Other reliable products include baking soda (works wonders when mixed with vinegar to form a paste) and the swiss army knife of natural cleaners tea tree oil, which has strong disinfecting properties and can be used to treat or clean a plethora of grievances.
We couldn’t broach the subject of managing water consumption in a more sustaibale way without paying lip service to the act of collecting and storing rainwater for reuse, commonly referred to as rainwater harvesting. India has a long history of rainwater catching and storage with archaeologists discovering more than 60,000 rainwater harvesting structures in the country dating back as far as the third century BC.
Whether dwelling in the city or the country, rainwater harvesting allows you to take control of and monitor your direct water use. The Centre for Science and Environment has a detailed step-by-step guide for setting up your own rainwater harvesting system. Check here to get started.
Treehugger also lists a few more useful water-saving tips here.