This is a guest article by Albert Bates
Adapted for The Automatic Earth from his Financial Collapse Survival Guide and Cookbook (Kindle, 2008)
“The future of civilization depends on water. I beg you all to understand this.”
— Jacques Yves Cousteau, 1997
We are addicted to petroleum, but that is nothing compared to our dependency on water. A starving animal can live even if it loses nearly all its glycogen and fat, as well as half its body protein, but a loss of 20 percent of the water in the body results in death. A person can live without food for over a month, but without water only a few days. Since the human body is made up of about 65 percent water, we must consider it an important nutrient.
Less than one hundredth of 1 percent of this blue planet’s water is fresh, renewed by rainfall. It is this tiny fraction that sustains fields, forests, wetlands, grasslands, and all terrestrial life.
Foolishly, human civilization has been ruining its most vital asset, and the pace of destruction is accelerating. Falling water tables, altered river flows, shrinking lakes, disappearing mangrove swamps, and “dead zones” in our oceans should warn us, but these warnings are mostly being ignored. We are still using rivers for irrigation until they are too dry to reach the sea; still building enormous dam and diversion projects in China, India, Turkey, New Zealand, and elsewhere; still draining freshwater aquifers at unreplenishable rates; and still dumping our sewage, garbage, and toxic chemicals into our drinking water.
Global warming will soon bring the situation to a head for many nations. Glaciers and mountain snowpacks are retreating in the Alps, Andes, Cascades, Himalayas, Rockies, and Sierra Nevada at rates never seen in human history. The temporary surge of meltwater creates water abundance for the cities and towns downstream, lulling them into false security. Then it will be gone, and with it, the ability of large populations to live in those places.
So what should we be doing? Every individual should first, and most importantly, identify and protect a secure supply of water. If we follow the recommendations that each person drink eight glasses of water a day, that’s 8 times 8 ounces or 64 ounces per person — two quarts (1.9 liters) of water per person per day for drinking.
Allow an equal amount for cooking, brushing teeth, and minimal cleaning up and you need four quarts or one gallon (3.8 liters) of water per person per day.
For two persons, two gallons. For a family of four, four gallons. For a three-day weekend, the family of four needs 12 gallons. For 30 days, a family of four would need 120 gallons (454 liters)! And this is rationing the amount of water used at all times. No toilet-flushing or clothes-washing is included in calculating minimum water needs.
Assessing Your Water-Readiness
Approaching this problem of water supply from our own situation, we need to ask whether our access to water is both sufficient and assured. Since most people live in or close to cities, they are likely to be dependent on municipal water systems. Municipal systems are almost never solar powered. They run on electricity, and, unless you are in Iceland, the electricity likely comes from oil, gas, coal, nuclear, or hydro. Only the last of those is a renewable resource, if it can be maintained. The rest will become increasingly scarce.
Variations in water supply are not a new problem for human societies. Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, was a major center of Mesoamerican civilization around 300 BCE and flourished until 700-800 CE. At its peak it supported a population of 150,000 to 200,000 — the sixth-largest city in the world — in a very dry climate. As the Teotihuacan population outgrew the springs and wells that marked the early settlement period, and as transportation of water from distant sources was impractical, the settlement came to rely on the water that fell generously from the sky in the short rainy season.
Some years ago, excavations in Teotihuacan uncovered the Palace of the Jaguars beneath a later pyramid. Close examination of the palace revealed that it was a cleverly engineered aeration device that even today harvests the rain, adds oxygen by passing the current through the mouths of jaguar-headed flow-forms, drops the water onto splash-pans, repeats the process, and then diverts the aerated fresh water into huge reservoirs concealed under the courtyards, ball fields, and boulevards where the water is stored in the dark to prevent the growth of algae.
Aeration discourages anaerobic bacteria and causes some chemical contaminants to oxidize into more benign substances. Bacteria can hitch a ride on suspended solids, so the slow settling process in the reservoirs and cisterns clears the water column. Teotihuacantecos might also have added coagulants like alum to make particles clump together and settle. Time was also on their side. Human pathogens thrive in the human body and similar environments. In a cold, dark, nearly nutrient-free tank, those pathogens gradually die.
Today we have other disinfection techniques that ancient peoples lacked. Ozonation kills pathogens by bubbling chemically unstable ozone through the water column, imparting oxygen much more effectively. Ultraviolet light kills most pathogens with high-energy waves. Chlorination employs a long-lasting environmental toxin that eliminates pathogens, although it has some nasty side effects for healthy ecosystems as well.
If your primary supply is rainwater (as it is for river- and reservoir- dependent settlements), you need enough water-storage capacity to make it through dry spells. You might also want some extra storage capacity for times when hurricanes, floods, or other natural catastrophes disrupt or pollute your supply. If your primary source is groundwater, you need enough storage to get through periods when the pump has no power, or when the supply has become contaminated. In exceptionally dry times, during natural disasters, or when there is sudden demand for a limited supply, even the best source may become unreliable.
Bacteria-free water can be kept indefinitely in opaque, airtight containers. The key question is, is it clean? To be safe, both the container and its contents should be disinfected before storage begins. In storage, the container should be tightly sealed and kept in a dark area, and the water should be taste-tested every six months. Properly stored water can remain fresh for several years.
In an emergency, rivers, lakes, and ponds are possible sources of water, but the water must be disinfected first. Chemical disinfectants are not effective for cloudy water. Run murky or discolored water through ceramic filters or a clean cloth to produce sediment-free water suitable for disinfecting.
Any water to be used for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, or any other internal use should be properly disinfected. There are several methods for disinfecting water. Boiling it vigorously for three minutes will kill any disease-causing microorganisms. Giardia is killed in less than a minute at 176°F, well under the boiling point. Bacteria and viruses last somewhat longer, but most are probably killed in less than five minutes at 190°F. Some viruses may last longer, but nobody knows for sure. At 10,000 feet water boils at 194°F, so above this altitude you should boil water an extra minute for each 1,000 feet.
You can improve the flat taste of boiled water by aerating it (pouring it back and forth between two containers), by allowing it to stand for a few hours in a clean container, or by adding a pinch of salt for each quart boiled.
Common household bleach contains a chlorine compound that will disinfect water. If the strength is unknown, add ten drops to each quart. Double this amount if the water is cloudy. The treated water should be mixed thoroughly and allowed to stand for 30 minutes. A simple test of effectiveness is to take a small taste. If the water doesn’t taste of chlorine, repeat the dosage and let it stand another 15 minutes.
Once you know the water is free of bacteria (i.e., when it tastes of chlorine), you can reduce the chlorine taste by letting the water sit for a while in an open container or by aerating it (pouring it back and forth between containers). This will allow much of the chlorine to off-gas.
One heaping teaspoon of calcium hypochlorite (approximately 1/4 ounce) dissolved in two gallons of water will produce a stock chlorine solution (500 milligrams per liter) since calcium hypochlorite is about 70 percent chlorine.
Disinfected water should have a chlorination of one part chlorine to 100 parts water. That’s one pint (16 ounces) of stock chlorine to 12.5 gallons of water. Don’t confuse concentrated calcium hypochlorite with stock chlorine! A gallon of drinkable water should have no more than a hundredth of an ounce of calcium hypochlorite.
Chlorine tablets ready for disinfecting water can be purchased with mixing instructions. When instructions are not available, try one tablet for each quart of water and use the taste test.
Disinfection with chlorine produces hazardous byproducts like trihalomethanes. Chlorine buildup in freshwater ecosystems and the atmosphere is a global concern and one more unsustainable way we are affecting our planet. Chlorinated drinking water causes at least 6,500 cases of rectal cancer and 4,200 cases of bladder cancer in the US annually. Let’s use as little chlorine as possible. We can accomplish this by using the other disinfection techniques first.
If no chlorine is available, you can use iodine. It is not as helpful as chlorine because it is ineffective against some pathogens, like Giardia or Cryptosporidium. It is best to use iodine to disinfect well water, rather than surface water, because well water is less likely to have these organisms.
Common household iodine from the medicine chest or first aid kit is 2 percent iodine. Add five drops to each quart of clear water or ten drops to each quart of cloudy water. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.
Iodine water-purification tablets can be found in most drug or sporting goods stores. When instructions are not available, use one tablet for each quart of water.
Instead of bleach, add ascorbic acid powder to stored water as a preservative. Just half a teaspoon (approximately two grams or 2,000 milligrams) added to a two-quart jar of water may give a very faint lemon flavor, but the water will be fresher. You can obtain soluble, pure, ascorbic acid crystals (Vitamin C) from Bronson Pharmaceuticals, La Canada, California, 91011 USA. It is a good item to be stockpiling.
Clean water needs clean containers. Once you have disinfected water, you should put it in a container that can block light and that is not too heavy for you to carry to where it will be used. A gallon of water weighs about eight pounds (3.6 kg), so a five-gallon jug (19 liters) is the largest size most people can carry.
When choosing food-grade containers, look for HPDE plastics (high-density polyethylene). They carry the recycling symbol with the number “2” inside the ring. Do not reuse containers that retain strong odors, held toxic materials, or are made from biodegradable plastics, such as milk and distilled-water containers. Biodegradable plastics will break down in about six months.
To prepare jugs for storing water, wash them well, rinse them with a solution of one tablespoon bleach to a gallon of water, and clean the cap. Once you’ve filled the jugs with water, take a marking pen and label each jug with the date it was filled. Use the oldest water first.
You can store full jugs in a basement, in a garage, or outdoors. If you store them outdoors, they should be covered, because sunlight will make plastic brittle over time. If water jugs stored outdoors are likely to freeze, fill them only four-fifths full. This gives the ice room to expand without splitting the sides.
Two- and three-liter soft-drink bottles are useful for water storage, but because they are clear plastic, water quality may deteriorate sooner. You should also know that one of the major components of most plastic containers in the market today is polybisphenol-A (PBA). Besides being a potential carcinogen, PBA is a hormone-disrupter, and in particular may lead to obesity, diminished sex-drive, and immune-system impairment. I try to steer clear of storing anything in PBA-containing plastic.
The best choice is glass. Because of its high embodied energy, glass is likely to grow increasingly scarce, particularly for inexpensive products like soft drinks. Hoarding wine and liquor bottles now for use later is not a bad idea, if you have the space. The tinted glasses are good for minimizing sunlight for many stored items, such as vegetable oils and preserves. I am particularly fond of Groelsch beer bottles that have those nifty wire and ceramic lids with tight seals.
Although large drums are too heavy to be moved when full, they are good for storage. Local beverage distributors, like Coca-Cola or Pepsi bottling plants, sell used 55-gallon HPDE drums at reasonable prices, often for as little as five dollars. These drums are sometimes white, so it’s a good idea to spray-paint their exteriors a dark color like black, blue, or dark green. Don’t store them next to the furnace or fireplace. They melt at 266°F (130°C).
Prior to painting and filling, make sure you have thoroughly cleaned and disinfected the inside. Syrup residue can be a fertile source for bacteria, and it will flavor your water.
If you have a house with gutters, begin to collect rainwater. Water storage typically costs 50 cents to $3 per gallon, and rainwater is so superior to most well and spring water that every home should have a supply. It requires no “softener,” uses less soap, and is friendlier to work with than even the best water that has come into contact with the ground. Grandmother loved the softness of rainwater for washing her hair, and the country house always had a barrel — topped with some screening to keep out leaves — standing under eaves near the gutter downspout.
You will need the following materials:
· A barrel, cistern, or tank
· A downspout from the gutter into the tank
· Hardware, such as elbows, pipes, and pipe cement, to connect the spout to the tank
· A “roof washer” to divert the first flow of dirty water away from the tank (see illustration)
· A tank overflow pipe to direct water away from your foundation
· A faucet for the bottom of the tank
· A tight-fitting, childproof, removable cover that will keep out mosquitoes and allow access for cleaning
· Hoses or watering cans to take water from the faucet to the garden or wherever it is needed
Cut a hole in the lid of a large, heavy-duty trash can, then place the can under the drainpipe of your gutter to collect water. Fasten some fine mesh screen under the hole to keep debris out. The illustration shows a simple system for dumping the leaves and dirt that collect on a roof before sending cleaner water to the cistern. You can construct a more elaborate filter by filling a tank or barrel with alternate layers of coarse gravel, charcoal, and sand to cleanse the water before sending it to the house. All filters should be drained and cleaned when not in use.
If you want to use roof-collected water for washing up, brushing your teeth, or drinking, it’s a good idea to filter it and then boil it for two minutes first, or use chemical treatment.
If your house doesn’t have gutters, maybe it’s time to think about adding them. An alternative is to construct a shed roof over a cistern tank at a high point of land and collect water there, then send it by gravity and pipe to your home. Enameled steel makes a good shed roof that stays cleaner.
Illustration: Rainwasher design by Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology
A really great book about making cisterns and designing ponds is Water Storage by Art Ludwig (available from oasisdesign.net). Some home designs are shown in the brochure “Everybody Needs a Rain Barrel” by Kathy Hill (from www.elizabethriver.org/Publications/Publications.asp).
If a disaster catches you without a stored supply of clean water, you can use water from your hot-water tank, plumbing, and ice cubes. As a last resort, you can use water in the reservoir tank of your toilet (not the bowl), but purify it first.
If you know a storm is coming and utilities may be cut, fill your bathtub with water. This is a great convenience for a bit of washing up. People whom have sailboats claim they can wash dishes for the whole crew in a teacup of water, and you may have to do the same. Scoop out a little at a time to wash your face, but put a jar of fresh or boiled water near the bathroom sink for brushing teeth.
If you live in a cold climate, there may be snow or ice outdoors. Have one or more buckets and a shovel handy to collect the snow. Bring it into your warm room and let it melt.
A large picnic cooler may hold 20 to 30 gallons (114 liters), as do large rubberized trash containers. If you keep a bag or two of ice in your freezer, put the bag into a clean, leak-proof container so you can use the water when the ice has melted.
A 50-gallon water heater will have 50 gallons of drinking water even after the water heater has been turned off. Start the water flowing by turning off the water intake valve and turning on a hot-water faucet. If you drain your electric water heater, be sure to refill it before restarting when the power comes back on. If you forget, the heating element could easily be ruined.
Waterbeds hold up to 400 gallons, but some contain toxic chemicals that may not be fully removed by many purifiers. If you designate a waterbed in your home as an emergency resource, drain it yearly and refill it with fresh water containing two ounces of bleach per 120 gallons. Use the water for cleaning and flushing, but don’t drink it.
If your water is cut off and you have to use the water in your pipes, let air into the plumbing by turning on the highest-elevation faucet in your house and draining the water from the lowest one.
Do you know the location of your incoming water valve? You’ll need to shut it off to prevent contaminated water from entering your home if you hear reports of broken water or sewage lines. Also, in cold climates, frozen pipes may burst if there is no heat. Shut off the water and drain the pipes if there’s a strong possibility of this occurring.
As we become more respectful of the value of our fresh water, we will want to take larger measures to protect it. Communities may reexamine the sources of their water supply and reconsider how they dispose of sewage, runoff, and industrial greywater in ways that threaten those sources. They might come to see expensive mechanical waste-treatment facilities as the capital-intensive engineering nightmares they are, drawing increasingly scarce energy from other needs for only marginal results. Natural and artificial waste-treatment wetlands will be appreciated as low-cost, high-return alternatives in need of expansion and preservation. Laws preventing rooftop rainwater catchment will be repealed. Community-scale seasonal storage tanks will be built. These are all good developments, but they should have been put in place decades ago.
“When I was in Israel looking at these large shed dairies, they are like European dairies, but instead of being fed with crops from natural rainfall, the crops in Israel are grown from water which has been pumped with electricity. Vast field crops of corn and wheat fed to dairy animals. And I said to the people there, ‘You know, in Australia the glass of milk we drink is about twenty percent oil. In Europe, it’s about fifty to sixty percent oil. In Israel, it’s about ninety percent oil!’” — David Holmgren, 2004
Albert Bates is author of The Financial Collapse Survival Guide and Cookbook and 14 other books on energy, environment and history, including Climate in Crisis (1990) and The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook (2006). A former environmental and civil rights lawyer, he has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and written a number of legislative acts. During those same 40 years, he was testing ecovillage models for ecology, economics and governance at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee. His organization, Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology, now provides a free online library of AT resources (www.i4at.org). A co-founder and past president of the Global Ecovillage Network, he is presently GEN’s representative to the UN climate talks. When not inventing fuel wringers for algae or pyrolizing cookstoves, he teaches permaculture, village design and natural building and is a special advisor for Gaia University. His latest book is The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change (New Society 2010).