Save Water, Don’t Flush

Mallika Naguran flushes out the truth about loos and sniffs around flushless, composting and integrated wash basin-cistern toilet innovations.

Singapore, 20 September 2010. Water is more precious than diamonds (and I'm a modern woman!)

Singapore, where I live, is blessed with adequate water now and perhaps in the near future. Water is made available to 5 million people in this rather flat landscaped tropical island city through a combination of natural water catchment areas (reservoirs, rivers), desalination from seawater, piped water from our kind neighbour Malaysia plus treated waste water using advance membrane technologies.

Water can be harvested from air too!

Singapore water catchment areas provide part of our water needs. But will our grandkids enjoy the same?

Singapore water catchment areas provide part of our water needs. But will our grandkids enjoy the same?

With climate change creating havoc by unleashing Mother Nature’s fury, we cannot take clean drinking water forever for granted. In many countries, millions of people are not so lucky; they consider drinking water straight from the tap a luxury. Thousands die of water-related diseases like malaria and typhoid. With flooding and global warming increasing sea levels, water catchment areas are the first to be severely affected with pollutants and higher that usual salt levels.

So water conservation is topmost on my mind. I think of ways to save water when I get about the day doing normal stuff – drink, wash, shower, cook, do the laundry, mop or wet clean the table and floors, and so on.

My bucket system: Red and Pink collect water; Blue for toilet flush

My bucket system: Red and Pink collect water; Blue for toilet flush

How do I save water? First, I place buckets (or pails) under the bathroom tap to collect drips and excess water during showers. I try not to use my gas powered water heater too much (to save energy of course and to be macho) but if I do, I run the cold water in a bucket until the water gets hot. So that good water is not drained away!

When I wash my hands, and even my hair, I aim for the bucket. So shampoo rinse and even conditioner with my waist-long hair easily fills up the bucket. And what do I do with the water? Using an even smaller bucket, I scoop up just about enough water to flush the toilet with. So I physically carry over the bucket and place it next to the toilet, where I manually pour out the water into the loo to push out toilet waste. (In my apartment, the lavatory is next door to the shower room).

Blue bucket placed next to loo conveniently.

Blue bucket placed next to loo conveniently.

What I discovered was about 1 litre of water is usually more than enough to force out excreta. Standard toilets fill up to 3 litres of water while dual flush types give 3 litres and 6 litres option. Now, that’s just too much water going down the loo!

So stop that robotic flushing! It’s wasteful. Auto or sensor flushes are a crime against the environment. Notice how many of them don’t work? Or flush continuously when faulty?

Collect water drained from shower, hand wash, hair wash and re-use them. Now before you squirm and shriek “eewww!!”, think. The re-used shower water can’t possibly be dirtier than what you’ve just deposited in the loo!

Re-using water this way on a daily basis, I was pleasantly surprised to see my water bill plunge, using only 13 cubic metres of water a month instead of nearly 18 cubic metres monthly. I now pay an average of $17 for my monthly water bills. This is way below Singapore’s national average of water consumption by residential units, that’s 19.2 cubic metres.

Flushing with good water. Who started this ridiculously wasteful system anyway? The age-old bucket system, though foul, has its merits; the manure eventually becomes a great source of fertilizer while conserving precious water.  Today, there are dry toilet inventions that revisit the wisdom of our great granddads.

Toilet that composts waste directly.

Toilet that composts waste directly.

A composting toilet for instance can look pretty stylish and cool as it uses an aerobic processing system that treats excreta, typically with no water or small volumes of flush water. Check out flushless urinals too. According to ABS-CBN News, around 200,000 of waterless urinals are being used worldwide, including the famed Taj Mahal.

Singapore’s toilets, regrettably, use perfectly drinkable water as flush water. As an eco alternative, surely rainwater can be captured, treated and channeled to flush public and private houses with? Those living in private houses take note – you can collect rainwater from rooftop drainage and use that for flushing or watering plants with.

Roca Innovation re-uses water from hand basin to cistern.

Roca Innovation re-uses water from hand basin to cistern.

There are more alternatives. If you are moving to a new apartment or house and have a chance to re-design your home, try to connect the outlet of the hand basin to the toilet cistern. A Chinese inventor has designed a simple system using this sensible approach by just extending the outlet pipe from the basin to the cistern. Here’s a fancy model developed by Spanish Roca Innovation Lab. Or Caroma from Australia that carries a cheaper price tag.

Shower water or laundry water (hand wash or machine) is excellent for soaking dirty rugs or to wet clean (mop) floors. Just add environmentally-friendly (phosphate-free) detergent and fragrant oil if needed. Avoid using bleach and chlorine as they harm wildlife that lap up waterways.

Caroma's integrated eco toilet.I collect every drop of water – in fact I get fanatical about the sound of plip plop. When cooking, I wash vegetables and fruit in a basin where I also rinse off the chopping board and knife without soap (why use soap to clean chopping board set aside just for plant-based matter?), eventually pouring them out to quench the thirst of my potted plants. I even leave bits of vegetable cuttings, peels and such in the water to nourish the soil.

Taj Mahal's flushless urinals.

Taj Mahal's flushless urinals.

Rinse off plates, cups in a portable basin and transfer the liquid to the bucket. And whenever you wash your hands, do that over the same bucket not over a sink that drains off water wastefully.

Don’t save water when it comes to drinking though. Water is the best liquid for hydration (isotonic drinks are great too), and our organs depend on optimal hydration to function well. Cut down caffeine, drink more water.

Whiskey with extra water doesn't count, regrettably.

Are there any other suggestions for water re-use or recycling in domestic setting?

Let’s hear it from you.

Related stories:

Launch of Asia P3 Hub, spearheaded by World Vision in Singapore

Community project in Sabah by BEST

The importance of water to health

Atmospheric water harvesting