Tag Archives: water

Low tech water saving toilet

Saw a tweet today from “Environmental technology” about waterless toilets being the way to save water “… the answer to conserving the most precious resource on our planet – water. Nicknamed the Nano-Membrane Toilet, this completely waterless unit separates waste out into solid and liquid, before recycling and disposing of it effectively.”

In 2008 we had a composting toilet at the allotment, a box with a toilet seat and a bucket underneath. The instructions were simple: 1. make a deposit, 2. cover with sawdust 3. close the lid. When the bucket was full the contents were composted. There was no smell and no flies. I would gladly have one in the house!


Gardening and the drought

There is no doubt that the drought will have a serious effect on farming and gardening. Lack of water will reduce yields and kill plants if they are not watered. Some gardeners never water their plots saying that there is no need but this year that is just not true and fruit and veg will need water to survive.

Standing by your plot in the late evening spraying everything with a hose pipe will not work. The water needs to be on the soil and not on the foliage. Some say that watering at night is the best as it reduces evaporation,  that is true but if you see plants with signs of severe water stress, i.e. wilting, water then immediately.

In previous years we have used drip irrigation which is often laid under mulch. This works very well as it gets the water to where it is needed and the mulch cuts down evaporation. The system has not been used for a while but is now back in service.

The best plan is not to water a little every day but to soak the ground every few days. Giving just a little water frequently does little good as it does no penetrate very far. The small amount of rain we had earlier this week got no further than the first inch of soil and then evaporated quickly the next day.

For small beds, including square foot gardens and square metre plots, use a bucket and either an old baked bean tin or yogurt container to ladle the water directly around the roots of each plant. I remember my grandfather doing this  more than 50 years ago and it works just fine.

It is also a good time to consider collecting rain water as every garden should have some water butts. We are lucky in that we have 4 huge tanks to store recovered water but that will not be enough if the drought continues.

There are predictions that we will have more droughts that last longer and are more severe so we had better get used to coping with a lack of rain. Now is the time to plan how to manage your plots to ensure a good harvest.

Ground water loss in California

In the coming years one of the major challenges for agriculture and horticulture will be finding water to irrigate crops. In some areas of the US the situation is already becoming difficult:

A new study released by NASA shows that the aquifers for California’s primary agricultural region — the Central Valley — and its major mountain water source — the Sierra Nevadas — have lost nearly enough water combined to fill Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir. The findings, based on data from the NASA/German Aerospace Center Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace), reflect California’s extended drought and increased rates of groundwater being pumped for human uses, such as irrigation.
[NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 14 Dec 2009]

This is not the first time that modern intensive agricultural practices in California has raised concerns. The pollution of ground water by fertiliser salts is well known and has rendered some areas impossible to cultivate.

The most prevalent forms of groundwater pollution from nonpoint sources are salt and nitrate contamination, which adversely affect approximately 10 to 15 percent of California’s water wells…
[University of California, 2003]

These are not just problems for California, wherever there is intensive agriculture there will be a huge demand for water and artificial fertliser which will pollute ground water. Until now these problems have been largely ignored or seen as marginal irritations. In the UK there are measures to reduce the nitrate concentrations in drinking water by limiting the amount of fertilisers and muck spread on fields.

Over the next few years water will become much more of a crucial concern as the effects of climate change produce unpredictable rainfall across the world. Already monsoons are not as reliable as they once were and in the UK there are more ‘once in a thousand years’ events which cause flooding. At the same time other regions experience droughts and it is not widely known that East Anglia suffered a three month drought this year which caused problems for farmers in the UK’s main grain growing area.

There is no easy answer, you cannot produce water in a factory but we can become more conscious of how and we use it. One of the first things should be national campaign to collect and store rainwater for household use. It makes no sense to use millions of litres of water every day just to flush toilets.

The use of drinking water in the garden is crazy. What is the point of using huge amounts of water just to have a green lawn? Lawn sprinklers should be permanently banned! Better still, dig up the grass and grow food which will save both money and water.

Despair flows as fields go dry and unemployment rises

This is the headline in the LA Times for an article about the acute water shortage in the San Joaquin Valley. Set in a semi-arid region that was once part of the great California desert, the valley was intensively farmed using huge amounts of irrigation water from north California.

Now the effects of drought, and a reduction in water supply to protect wildlife, has left farmers high and dry. The result is far less land under cultivation with a huge losses of profits and jobs.

The amount of water available for irrigation has always been secondary to drinking water requirements. Recent drought and a reduction in snow melt has put pressure on the water companies who have responded by reducing the amount sent for irrigation.

Statewide runoff — the amount of rainfall and snow melt that ends up in rivers and streams — was 53% of normal in 2007 and 58% of normal in 2008, said Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources. The federal government-run water supply allotted only half the water that farmers south of the delta had been expecting in 2007, and 40% in 2008.

There is also grave concern about the effects on wildlife which led to pumps being turned off:

This year has been even drier after a federal court ordered that pumps moving water through the system be turned down to protect endangered species including delta smelt, salmon and green sturgeon. The pumps can reverse the water flow and trap salmon in the river, pulverize fish or ensnare them on screens, said Maria Rea, supervisor of the Sacramento office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Growing food in deserts is always a marginal activity and it looks like those days are now over. Using technology and massive engineering projects to force food to grow in unsuitable areas is not a reliable way to feed people and does nothing for long term food security

This is just one more effect of climate change and maybe it will serve as a reminder of the problems in food production that face the world.

Read more

Water footprint of food

In the UK we take water for granted. Fresh drinking is available when we turn on a tap but there is another side of water consumption that is often unknown or ignored.

A lot of water is used to produce and process food.  When food is imported this water become part of our water footprint.  A recent report highlights just how much water is embedded in food, it makes interesting reading and is not good news for chocoholics or beef eaters!

Food item Unit Global average water footprint (ltrs)
Apple or pear 1 kg 700
Banana 1 kg 860
Beef 1 kg 15,500
Beer (from barley) 250 ml 75
Bread (from wheat) 1 kg 1,300
Cabbage 1 kg 200
Cheese 1 kg 5,000
Chicken 1 kg 3,900
Chocolate 1 kg 24,000
Coffee 125 ml 140
Cucumber or pumpkin 1 kg 240
Dates 1 kg 3,000
Groundnuts (in shell) 1 kg 3,100
Lettuce 1 kg 130
Maize 1 kg 900
Mango 1 kg 1,600
Milk 250 ml 250
Olives 1 kg 4,400
Orange 1 kg 460
Peach or nectarine 1 kg 1,200
Pork 1 kg 4,800
Potato 1 kg 250
Rice 1 kg 3,400
Sugar (from sugar cane) 1 kg 1,500
Tea 125 ml 30
Tomato 1 kg 180
Wine 125 ml 120

Some say that water will be a much bigger issue than oil in the coming years.  There have already been changes to the UK climate making it more difficult to predict when it will rain and how much will fall. Maybe it is time we started thinking about how we use water both real and virtual?

Read more
The full text of the report is available here (PDF)
A definition of virtual water is here

World faces ‘perfect storm’ by 2030

Yesterday The Guardian published a story about predictions from John Beddington, the government’s chief scientist, concerning  problems with energy, water and food supplies. He says that these issues will converge to create a ‘perfect storm’ in 2030.

This is the gravest warning yet that the world is on the edge of disaster. It does not come from an aging hippie, environmental campaigner, or anybody else that can be stereotyped and dismissed, but from the government’s chief scientist.

Beddington says that in just over 20 years the effects of climate change will cause summer droughts that will have a severe impact on food supplies. East Anglia, the biggest grain producing area in the UK, will be badly affected. The rest of the world will suffer a similar fate so it is no good looking to the ‘supply chain’ for food, there will be none to buy.

We have time to do something and a good start would be an honest realisation and admission by government that there are problems ahead. But the main political parties are so totally absorbed by getting, or retaining power, that they look no further than the next few years. That is just not good enough and ignoring food security is a major dereliction of duty. We need policies to strengthen food security and we need them now.

With this in mind I wrote to the leaders of the Labour party, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party on 2 February 2009. The letters were identical and asked each leader to say what policies they had to maintain and improve food security in the UK.

The text of the letter is reproduced below

Over the last few months I have become increasingly concerned about food security in the UK especially since the publication of the report from Chatham House, “Food Futures: Rethinking UK Strategy”.

As a voter I want to hear what policies you, as party leader, propose to maintain and improve food security. I do not a want a standard letter, a press release, lots of criticism of other parties or to be refereed to DEFRA for one of their standard replies. Instead, please tell me what you and your party intend to do about this.

So far the only reply is from the Green party. They included a copy of their policy but  I have since found all of their policies on their web site; food security in covered in agriculture and food.

After about a month the Labour party responded saying that Gordon Brown was very busy so my letter had been referred to DEFRA. There is no mention of  food security on their web site.

Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats have bothered to reply.There is nothing about food on the Conservative party site apart from a campaign about food labeling. They want to ensure that pork pies contain British pork.The Liberal Democrat site, although better on climate change, does not mention food security.

There have been enough high powered reports from various independent think tanks and organisations stressing the urgency of building a more resilient food supply. What more is needed? Why is it so difficult for the government to admit there is a real problem and show some leadership and begin to promote changes in the way that food is grown and distributed?

Update 11 Apr 2009
At long last I have received a response from the Liberal Democrats. They say that they take the issue of food security very seriously so much so that they propose a change to the single farm payments. They want to set the minimum amount of the claim to £250 and use the money saved to introduce apprenticeships for hill farmers. Just how that relates to food security I have yet to fathom.

I have still not heard from DEFRA after the Labour party forwarded my letter.

The Conservatives are now the only party NOT to make any response at all and I can only assume they do not have any policies to communicate.

Update 23 June 2009
The Conservative party responded after I sent another letter. They do not have a policy on food security but did send a copy of a couple of speeches made by David Cameron and Baroness Neville-Jones where food security was mentioned.

The speech by Neville-Jones was about energy security! There were some very brief remarks about food security at the beginning but nothing really specific about having a food security policy. It almost looked as if she just did not believe there was an issue with a ‘we have seen it all before and nothing happened then’ remark similar to the arguments used by climate change sceptics!

Cameron’s speech talked a lot about the problems farmers now face. He made broad, general statements about helping farmers be more competitive but my impression is that he was soliciting votes – he was speaking at the NFU 100th anniversary event – rather than addressing the real issues. He was heavy on government bashing and rhetoric acceptable to his audience but very light on policy. Worse still,  all he could see were small changes to conventional farming, things like making the single farm payments system easier to use and decoupling production from subsidies in the rest of the EU. There was nothing new, nothing that would really help produce more food. To me that shows that he did not understand the depth and urgency of the issue and certainly did not have any policies to tackle it.

So folks it looks as if we are on our own. Grow food or starve should be the new motto.

Greywater recycling for garden irrigation

This is another film from Peak Moment Television about creating a grey water irrigation system. It is US based so any building regulations apply to the US.

Trathen Heckman says that UNESCO gives the figure for water required for human health as 5-10 gallons (~19-38 ltrs) a day but the average US citizen uses near 100 gallons (378 ltrs) a day at home. In the UK the average is 150ltrs per day.

The only time using grey water makes the news in the UK is when there is a hose pipe ban. We haven’t had many for a few years but the time will come soon enough. Be prepared; learn how to recycle grey water now.

The film mentions a Jandy valve, see their web site here. They are probably not available in the UK but something similar might be used for large scale irrigation or swimming pool plumbing.