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Introduction to Water management and tips for your garden and home - TNK Green

Introduction to Water management and tips for your garden and home

Water is one of our most valuable resources on the planet. No plant or animal species can survive without water. With rising ocean temperatures, the water cycle on our planet is changing, and the distribution of water is sure to have a significant impact on society in the future. Even though our planet is 71% covered in water, the amount of freshwater suitable for human consumption and production is less than 3%. Rivers, lakes and marshlands have been the lifeblood of humanity, with ancient cities often built on the banks of a reliable source of water to support their development, their industry, and irrigate their farmland.

Often the difference between survival and extinction was our ability to control water. With human ingenuity, we could make even the aridest of places livable. From the Sumerians to the Incas, each culture had an ingenious system adapted to local conditions to supply and control water flow. Rightfully so, the mismanagement of water can affect entire ecosystems and have unforeseen circumstances.

In our cities, the problem is even more visible. For decades city developers, architects and engineers have implemented off-site water management strategies in our cities where water is collected, channelled and quickly discharged downstream utilising stormwater pipes and drains. With so many hard surfaces in our cities, the large volumes of water sometimes require cavernous infrastructure to handle the masses of water that can precipitate in a single downpour. This is a giant expense for cities to maintain, but the downstream erosion can also have devastating effects.

Similarly, in agriculture, we often disregard natural sublimation in favour of getting rid of water as fast as possible, leading to erosion. This is often exacerbated by a lack of natural vegetation and ground cover on freshly ploughed land with no roots to protect the soil and retain water. Consequently, the lack of absorbed water can lead to depleting the natural aquifers over time.

Another significant problem is the pollution of natural waterways and streams by unmanaged runoff and artificial fertilisers. There are very few untainted natural waterways left on the planet, and environmentalists worldwide are raising the red flag on the issue and the need to take urgent action. Problems range from industrial waste, fertiliser runoff from fields, untreated sewage, oil spills, and plastic pollution. These problems can irreparably destroy ecosystems and degrade water quality because it is no longer deemed safe for human consumption and consequently not healthy for plants, animals and insects.

There is a growing movement toward re-wilding our waterways and pieces of the natural environments by re-introducing keystone species like Beavers in Oregon and the UK, Bison in Spain and even Jaguars in the Pampas in Argentina that all had extraordinary results. These keystone species had a knock-on effect on ecological health that highlighted the intricate connection between mammals and how they shape their environments.

Rachel Carson wrote in her 1962 published book ‘Silent Spring’ that ‘Water must be thought of in terms of the chains of life it supports.’ Everything in that chain is dependent on that system. With all these new studies and projects, we realise the intricate connections created by the web of plants and animals in an ecosystem and how easily these systems can collapse once we remove a single part of it.

So how do we address such a big problem? We require a massive change in managing water by removing some of the hard surfaces in our cities like pavement and planting more trees. We can also create water gardens and berms of vegetation where water is allowed to pool and permeate naturally into the soil. It is becoming more popular for cities to implement these strategies making use of green roofs and allowing for more absorption of water in our urban and suburban environments. This is commonly referred to as the ‘Sponge City’ concept and has been implemented in several cities around the globe. Cities like Singapore and Berlin are implemented comprehensive in-situ stormwater management strategies and other cities are following suit.

The destructive nature of water comes mainly from torrents and fast-flowing water that pick up soil, stones, and debris that can dramatically alter a landscape. This process is called soil erosion, and there are multiple ways to prevent it. The number one strategy is to break the water flow as it makes its way downstream and allows ample collection basins to slow the flow and facilitate water collection.

In our homes and gardens, we can manage water in different ways. If you have no gutters on the edge of your roof, adding an apron of gravel or stone around your house can break the speed of water dripping down during a downpour and allow for the slower dispersion of water. By paring this with groundcover and selective planting beds that can absorb standing water, the major issue of erosion could be eliminated.

Alternatively, gutters on your roof could be used to harvest rainwater. Connecting your gutters to a rainwater collection tank can store water to irrigate your garden. This is a great way to bring down your water bill, especially if you live in a suburban environment and love to water your garden. Although we can also dig a borehole and tap the aquifer below our feet, these reservoirs can also be depleted. Therefore, it is essential to allow water to seep into the soil and replenish the water table. Water can also be collected in ponds, bogs and bioswales that allow slow absorption and, as a bonus, can promote biodiversity.

So now that we have spoken about rain and stormwater, what about the thousands of litres of water that go into our drains? Can we reuse some of that water? The answer is both yes and no. The water generally used to flush our toilets can not be easily recycled on-site without substantial infrastructure. Called Blackwater, this water typically ends up at large sewage treatment plants where a complex process of chemical, microbial and bacterial colonies can digest the waste and clean it to the point where the water can be released back into the environment. New developments in sewage treatment like ozone and UV (as implemented and used in Paris) can even make it fit for human consumption.

Okay, what about the remainder of the water that goes down our drains? Called Greywater it includes water from your sink, handwash basins, shower, bath, and even washing machines. This water can be collected in a water tank, filtered and given a second use. By implementing one or more water-collecting options, a household could cut its consumption by almost half. This water, not generally considered fit for human consumption, can still have multiple uses like flushing your toilet. If you use eco-friendly soaps and detergents, greywater could be used to water your garden.

The final issue we need to discuss is consumption and flow rates. We have all come across duel-flush toilets and sensor-activated taps, and in recent years it’s becoming ever more prevalent that we need to conserve water wherever possible. A single person sends 2-3 litres of water down the drain by simply opening a tap to wash your hands for thirty seconds. By flushing a toilet, up to 13 litres of water ends up in the drain. This means that an average household of four people can consume as much as 71 litres in a single day. Luckily new sanitaryware designs control the flow rate from taps, and dual flush toilets can further limit water waste.

All this seems like a lot of information, and it is a complex issue to wrap your head around, but it is only through awareness and collective action that we can solve this growing problem. Remember that we are all part of the broader web of life and that water is our lifeblood. I believe that with a little bit of education and positive engagement, we can all become a part of the solution. Be a champion for your local water system. Stay Waterwise.

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