There’s a great line in the 1987 Diane Keaton movie, Baby Boom, when her character finds out her well has run dry. She says something to the effect of: “I want to turn on my tap and have water come out. I don’t want to know where it comes from.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that line since the night a few weeks ago when I turned on my tap while making dinner … and nothing came out. We live in the country and draw the water to our house from a well. It hasn’t run dry, though it turns out we have several other water-related problems that remain unresolved – mainly because it is winter and the ground is frozen solid, making digging an impossibility.
We have lived in the country for many years so we are used to water problems, though we were caught unprepared in this case with no water in reserve. I can assure you that will not happen again.
People in Canada do not sing the praises of indoor plumbing anywhere near as loudly and fervently as they should. Living without it all of a sudden is a little like breaking your collarbone – you know in theory that the bone is important, but you don’t understand how much you rely on it for almost every physical movement until you can’t use it any more.
Try living without running water, even for just one day. Forget your morning shower. Forget flushing your toilet, brushing your teeth, making coffee, cleaning clothes or dishes. Washing your hands. Watering your plants. Rinsing your vegetables. To say nothing of drinking a glass of the stuff. You don’t realize how often you reach for that tap until it stops working.
A lot of us – including me – are like Diane Keaton’s character. We just want to turn on our taps. We don’t want to know where the water comes from.
I like to think of our family now as true practitioners of Zen. We chop wood and carry water. Lots of water. We have access to a pump about 30 metres away, down a fairly steep hill. We carry 20 litres at a time in plastic jugs. If you’re having trouble visualizing that, here’s something that might help: It weighs about 40 pounds.
According to Environment Canada, the average Canadian runs through approximately 329 litres of water per day. There are five people living in our house at the moment, including three teenaged boys who love to shower, so that would bring our grand total to 1,645 litres per day. Right now we are using 100. In total.
The number is skewed slightly because it doesn’t take into account that many of us are away from the house during the day and using toilets elsewhere. It discounts our visits to the laundromat, to public washroom facilities when they happen to present themselves, and to the community centre for the occasional hot shower. But this experience is teaching me that I could easily survive on a lot less water than I normally use.
For example, I have discovered that it takes about eight litres of water to adequately flush a toilet. Older toilets use 20 litres per flush, a phenomenal waste. I can assure you, you would think twice about that if you had to carry the 20 litres every time you went to the bathroom.
The average shower consumes anywhere from 56 to 95 litres of water. These days we are managing to get relatively clean with some soap, a washcloth and a bowl of warm water – about one litre in total. No shampoo. No lingering. It’s not ideal, but it works.
This doesn’t sound like fun, does it? It isn’t. At first it was like camping – kind of amusing, with an end in sight. That was a month ago. With snow on the ground and the temperature still below zero, there is no end in sight. It is not like camping; it’s beginning to feel permanent. And nothing about it is even remotely funny.
I know our water problem will be fixed soon enough. But I can’t help but make the connection to something bigger and more disturbing than a mere household inconvenience. One day this little inconvenience might threaten to become a nationwide reality. One day our water might run out. And there will be no laundromat to rely upon, no community centre showers or public washrooms.
It’s time to start imagining what this might feel like. We waste water. We pollute it. Climate change is already having an effect on how much water we will have access to in the future. And Canada is a water-rich country. Many other places in the world are already suffering what we cannot yet envision.
Everyone knows this. We’ve all heard it a thousand times. Yet still we water our lawns and wash our cars obsessively. You cannot appreciate the gift of running water until you experience what your life is like without it. I wonder how it would affect people if Canada instituted a water day, like Earth Hour when everyone shuts off their lights. If we all turned off our water systems – perhaps for an entire day – I wonder how we might feel the next time we ran our taps for no reason.
I have already vowed this experience will change the way our family consumes water. I am looking into low-flow toilets and shower heads. I am making peace with my dirty car. And I will be saying a small prayer of gratitude from now on every time I turn on my tap.
Michelle Barker lives in Penticton, B.C.