Beyond ‘dirty hippies’

Hanniah Tariq wants a serious conversation about conserving water. But a lot of people want to make light of the matter

Beyond ‘dirty hippies’
I had been crashing on a friend’s couch in New York for two weeks, a while back. As is expected in a student’s apartment in an over-developed city, what with a throng of girls crashing there every weekend, there were normally about five of us queuing to use the shower every morning. Over time, everyone noticed that I was the fastest in and out, consistently. This discovery paved the way for a detailed discussion over my 10-minute shower rule and why I choose that over a long relaxing start to the day. I very proudly (or perhaps complacently) conveyed that it was a habit developed over time to regularly conserve water in a structured way in my daily life. Confronted by looks of amusement, I fired some of my favorite facts at them. For instance, every minute in the shower on average, using a low flow showerhead, can use up as much as 2.5 gallons of water. And that 663 million people in the world have no access to improved water sources according to UNICIEF. After I was done, there was silence from the room until I heard the last thing I expected. The response consisted of entertained looks and then various questions followed which included:

Have you devised a strict protocol for using that time efficiently? Is it like the gym with “legs day” and “arms day” etc? You probably don’t tell too many people about this, do you? Wouldn’t using more deodorant than most people just contribute to global warming?

Even though I firmly believe that 10 to 15 minutes are all that anyone needs to efficiently shower, I tried to switch the focus off myself, the dirty hippy. I told the room of chuckling girls about a family I know that only flushes if it is ‘number two’ – as flushing a toilet once can use roughly two gallons of water. Their motto, apparently, being “if its brown, flush it down. If it’s yellow let it mellow.” There was further horror and disbelief on the group’s faces and then more jokes followed. The most notable and entertaining of these was “Why are environmentalists bad at playing cards? They like to avoid the flush”. A friend of mine tries to get as much use out of each t-shirt as she can before washing them to save water and, well, let’s just say she doesn’t advertise that either. A family who uses only recycled water for watering their garden has many guests refusing to attend any functions or get-togethers in their lawn. It has become extremely fashionable to claim to be an environmentalist but those walking the walk only appear to provide amusement for most.

The dry perimetre of Rawal Lake in Pakistan

It really does seem like trying to live an eco-friendly lifestyle can be quite hazardous for people’s perceptions of your hygiene – even if you are a celebrity. Who can forget Sheryl Crow’s 2007 proposition for a possible simple (but hardly elegant) part-solution to environmental degradation in the form of restrictions on the use of toilet paper? The singer and activist suggesting that “Only one square (her terminology for one piece of paper, tore at the perforation) per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where two to three could be required” caused a lot of ridicule and half the world began to question her sanitation habits.

Truth is that putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to living responsibly is hard. People claiming to be environmentalists or advocates for trying to mitigate human-induced climate change need to take a good long look inside their homes. Lights and air conditioners will be left on all day and every car in the household washed daily. In the summers when water tanks on roofs get particularly hot, people will leave the shower running whilst waiting for it to get to their desired temperature. In that time, the two gallons or more of water going down the drain seems to bother no one. I know of two sisters who live in the same house: both are environmentalists, both give long-winded speeches on the importance of conserving water. One uses a bucket to bathe whilst the other nullifies this positive contribution by using a rain shower. However, the one with the bucket is the one who faces sustained ridicule in the larger family.

Singer and song-writer Sheryl Crow found herself mocked widely in the media for her advice regarding toilet paper conservation

Ridiculing those who do their part will not change the fact that Pakistan will be the 23rd most water-stressed country in the world by 2040

In April of this year it was reported that Simly and Khanpur dams were shrinking by almost three inches daily. By May it was conveyed by authorities that water was falling short of current demand by 21 million gallons per day. In August it was reported that the per capita water availability has reached a mere 908 cubic meters. In 1951 this had been 5,600 cubic meters. The country is undoubtedly on the brink of a water crisis with a substantial proportion of the population oblivious to the dangers of water poverty – until the tanker that they ordered doesn’t show up on time. Yet they continue to waste water with abandon whenever it is available.

Front-runners need to lead by example but sadly there are not many leaders to look up to. I recall there was a water shortage in my youth and we were picnicking next to a very parched looking Rawal Dam in the summer. One of the uncles was joking about a popular political leader at the time who had apparently implored citizens to conserve water and had offered advice. The suggestion to the population was– and I paraphrase – “if somebody wanted a cup of tea, to leave one aside for his sake and save the water”. The whole group was in stitches by the end of that story (which I still can’t believe is true). Nonetheless it is going to take far more than abandoned cups of tea and a lot more than talking about it in drawing rooms to make a difference. People will have to change their lifestyles and attitudes – drastically and immediately. Ridiculing those who do their part will not change the fact that Pakistan will be the 23rd most water-stressed country in the world by 2040.