January 15, 2024

We vote "across the pond" but consume water locally: the Catalonian water emergency

If you've been paying attention to the local news, you know that Catalonia is currently experiencing a very severe drought and that this has been going on for some time—we're currently in the dryest three-year period in 110 years. If you look around, you'll notice parched plants and signs in parks announcing that the city is limiting itself to "survival watering" in public gardens. Car-washing at home and filling up swimming pools are prohibited. All street cleaning is being done with recycled water.

We got a little rain last week, but don't get your hopes up: it mostly evaporated, leaving reservoirs even lower than before. They're currently below the previous alarming level of 17% capacity. There's barely any snow in the mountains to melt and swell rivers this spring, and the authorities are preparing to bring in water by tanker ship. If things don't improve, they may start limiting water pressure in July. The official status is "pre-emergency," but this is an environmental emergency in every sense, part of the climate catastrophe and of what is known as a "compound dry-hot event."

As expats, we're busy integrating with the local community culturally, linguistically, professionally, socially. Another way way we can (and really should) do this is by conserving water every day and in every way we can. It's easy to forget that what comes out of the faucet is a scarce, life-sustaining resource, and that small changes in everyday habits by many people can have a huge positive impact.

Here are 10 tips on saving water, adapted from a poster published by Aigues de Barcelona.

  1. TURN OFF FAUCETS: Turn off the faucet while soaping up when washing hands and showering and while brushing your teeth.

  2. TAKE SHOWERS, NOT BATHS: A bathtub uses 300 liters (80 gallons) of water, a shower uses just 50 (13). Especially if you follow steps 1 and step 3.

  3. WATER HEATER WASTE: If you have a tankless water heater, collect the cold water that comes out first, before the hot water makes it to the faucet. Use it for things like manual toilet flushes, watering plants, and mopping floors.

  4. TOILET FLUSHING: Use the short flush if you have a dual-flush tank. If you don’t, you can put a couple of plastic bottles full of sand in the tank. That saves 3 liters of water in every flush. Also, if you’ve ever lived somewhere with water scarcity, you may already be familiar with the slogan “If it’s yellow let it mellow…”

  5. WASHING MACHINE & DISHWASHER: Always run them fully loaded. Also, try to only wash clothes and linens when they really need it, they’ll last longer and you’ll save water.

  6. THE TOILET IS NOT A TRASH CAN: A normal toilet uses between 9-12 liters (2-3 gallons), so avoid using it to dispose of things that don’t belong there.

  7. REPAIR LEAKS: Detect and fix leaky faucets, toilet tanks, and pipes.

  8. REUSE WATER: Use the water from washing fruits and vegetables to water plants. You can also reuse water used to cook for plant watering, as long as it doesn’t contain salt or chemicals.

  9. INSTALL AERATORS & FLOW REDUCERS ON FAUCETS: Install aerators and flow reducers on all your faucets to slow down water consumption. They add air to the water to make it go farther, saving up to 50%. Available at hardware stores, they’re cheap and easy to install.

  10. WATCH WHAT YOU POUR DOWN THE DRAIN: Certain substances (oils, detergents, paints) are difficult to eliminate and harmful to the environment. Just one liter of mineral oil can pollute 10,000 liters of water. Small quantities of oils used in cooking or drained from tuna cans can be absorbed in paper towels and disposed of in the organic or general garbage bin. Larger quantities and other polluting substances need to go to your neighborhood Punt Verd.

    Also, sterilization of all household surfaces is generally not necessary; try to use more environmentally friendly cleansers whenever possible to minimize the amount of bleach, ammonia, and other poisons going down the drain.

Here's another one, from dark ages before dishwashers were ubiquitous: people used to wash all their dishes by hand in a basin of soapy water, using running water only to rinse. That was the beauty of the double sink. I remember being taught as a child to wash the glasses first and the plates and silverware last. Seems like we're all giving our dishes a "shower" these days, which is the least water-efficient way to wash dishes. If you don't have a double sink, you can use a pot for the soapy water. You'll also use less soap, which is better for the environment. Dishwashers, however, are the most water-efficient, especially using the ECO setting.