Energy Diet

Feeling the sting of the spray of Niagara Falls a number of times during the recent holiday weekend, I was conscious of how limited is our global supply of freshwater. The falls drain four of the five Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie) into the Niagara River, before emptying into Lake Ontario. The lakes, which are essentially shared by the U.S. and Canada, are said to contain almost a fifth of all the freshwater on Earth.

Caroline and I were joined by our son, Anthony, on the Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes tourists into the maw of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of Niagara. It’s a tourist tradition to get up as close as safely possible to the foot of the falls, to feel the angry agitation of the churning river and be drenched by the spray of millions of gallons of water hurtling off a rock ledge 170 feet above you.

As impressive as Niagara and the Great Lakes are, it also boggles the mind that so much of the world’s freshwater supply is in this one place. The rest of the water so vital for all humans and many animals and plants is spread around the remainder of the planet.

Earth’s freshwater is finite. Many parts of the world are experiencing dire shortages. And as the world human population continues to expand and our rate of consumption per person escalates, we are speeding toward global disaster.

There are lots of small ways we can reduce our water consumption, especially water that involves great inputs of energy — such as the manufacture and transportation of bottled water. There are many advantages to cutting the use of bottled water, not least reducing concerns about the use of all that plastic (which requires more use of energy and may even have some health impacts).

For the energy diet I have made sure that I keep my shower time to a minimum. A good way to do this is to run the shower on the cool side, making it slightly uncomfortable. I remind myself of my youth, when at boarding school or in the Army we often had to make do with cold showers even in winter — and how we learned to endure them by briefly getting wet, turning off the water to soap up, then turning the water on again only long enough to rinse. It’s guaranteed to cut water consumption to the absolute minimum.

While hiking through the African bush for days on end I also learned how it’s possible to shower with only a bottle of water — dangling it from a tree and using it sparingly to soak and rinse. It shows what can be done when every drop is precious.

We’ve already replaced toilets and shower heads with low-flow models in our home. And I have started a gradual replacement of the plants in our garden with native species and xeriscaping. That cuts the need for watering — which also means less time I have to stand outside exposed to the ferocious Asian mosquitoes that have invaded Northern Virginia!

Here in the northeast of North America it might seem as if we have no shortage of water. Our rivers and lakes are plentiful and rain falls regularly. We live in a great urban forest brimming with life, evidence of a well-watered landscape. The great falls of Niagara are a metaphor for our wealth of water.

But we’re wasting our heritage. We dam the rivers and drain the aquifers. We pollute our water with toxic mining methods. Our watersheds are drains for chemicals washed from our lawns and farms and drugs flushed down our toilets. We’re under pressure to divert the rivers and lakes to parts of the U.S. that are increasingly thirsty.

Because of the 360-degree Energy Diet I have become even more aware of the situation and what can be done at the individual level. Will you join us and do the same? Or shall we learn the hard way the lesson of the old proverb: “We don’t know the value of water until the well runs dry.”