I have had a vision of a dry and waterless future! A future in which all our labour-reducing, time-saving, convenience-driven gadgets and appliances that inextricably tie us to and enforce our dependency upon a centralised services provision system, are rendered useless! Let me explain – during the week, we had no water supply for two days.
I know that in Australia with an extended drought and water restrictions the affect on daily life is much bigger and more enduring in the long run, however to experience complete and sudden lack of any water, in an apartment in a big city where water is generally considered ubiquitous, condensed the experience quite drastically. In practice, it was an inconvenience but not insurmountable, as we were at work for most of that time anyway. The most interesting part for me was the larger scale effect – our entire apartment building of 130-odd flats was affected, I’d say around 350-400 people. Would it open our eyes to resource-shortages and make us more careful in future? And what would happen if it was more than just our building? If it was for longer than 2 days? The suddenness means that people have no time to prepare, to adjust to reducing demand and finding alternative sources (well except for making an emergency dash to Tesco for bottled water – that would only last so long).
When we arrived home on Monday night and discovered that the water was off, I was convinced that they couldn’t ignore 130 flats worth of unflushable toilets and unshowered young professionals clamouring for attention for very long. Two days isn’t that long, but it’s longer than I expected! Given my expectation for a speedy resolution, I thought that rather than rush out and purchase supplies of bottled water, we should do a little experiment in self-sufficiency and emergency resource-shortage tactics. We had a half bottle of water in the fridge, that would have to do us for however long it took. It really makes you assess your water use differently when you know that’s all you have. Fortunately we had just done a load of dishwashing and clothes washing on the weekend so we were not in dire straights with regard to those items. I also had a saucepan of leftover soup so that was an easy choice for dinner the first night. The second night was more of a stretch, as I could think of things to make but here our ethically-sourced organic vegetables were a slight downside – all the carrots, potatoes, parsnips etc come covered in mud, which also rubs off onto other veg – a bit of our water was used up in veg scrubbing (interestingly it uses much less water to wash them post-peeling than pre-peeling). Tooth-brushing and hand-washing were frugal, tea-drinking was forbidden, and we showered in the cyclist’s showers at Justin’s office (a fortunate resource, otherwise we’d have had to join a gym! Interesting, as 100 or so years ago there were public baths provided in East London for the unwashed masses who lived 10 families to the house or something like that, the ones that are left are now part of private gyms). Justin toyed with the idea of breaking out the toolbox and siphoning water directly from our boiler cylinder but I managed to convince him to leave that as our last resort, say after three days of no water, when the structure of society as we know it is crumbling around our ears.
Now, in theory, I’m in favour of cities as a strategy for housing future populations, which is one of the reasons we came here – they have a small geographic footprint per capita which can contain suburban sprawl and help to retain some surrounding natural environments, they condense infrastructure and services, facilitate efficient public transportation systems, they can reduce car dependancy due to expense and inconvenience, as well as potentially encouraging walking and cycling as distances to services are reduced. The downside, especially in London, is that food and other goods travel a long way to get here, and also that the more people live in urbanised environments the greater their disconnection from natural and rural environments, they lose understanding of seasons and are under the happy misapprehension that they can obtain any item at any time, hence mangoes being available in London all year round (not very nice ones but they’re there nonetheless). The other downside as we discovered this week, is that the dependency upon having mainstream services (water, power, fuel, waste disposal) on tap is very high. I assume that having no water or other services in Australia, or anywhere, is just as much of an inconvenience, but for some reason it struck me that it would be quite a problem here due to the density of the city. Self-sufficiency is harder when the whole urban structure is designed around dependency on the state – there’s no option for installing a rainwater tank or growing a few veg in the garden or putting solar panels on the roof, if you live in a flat on the fourth floor.
So what will happen when all resources are in shorter and shorter supply? Will our cities, urban design, and building typologies all be rendered redundant? Will city centres empty as people seek a plot of earth to make their own destiny, or will suburbs disappear as individual forms of transport become insupportable and cities condense to share resources more efficiently? Will human civilisation collapse under the chaos of resource wars, as Justin gloomily predicts? Or will we meet the challenge and come up with clever ways of integrating self-sufficiency measures, water collection and urban organic agriculture (as in Havana, Cuba), decentralised alternative power generation cooperatives (as in parts of Germany and Scandinavian countries), wean ourselves off petroleum products in all their guises (pesticides and fertilisers, beauty products, plastics etc) to regain some measure of connectivity with our environment, and create economically, socially and environmentally sustainable communities? Hmmmm.
You’ll be pleased to know that our water is back on again – for now……..