Saturday, March 27, 2010

Grey world

IN our household, I am the harvester of water.

That’s a piquant name for a “disgusting” habit: reusing as much of the water I use while bathing.

I don’t have a complicated bathing ritual but I do shampoo my hair every time. The wastewater I harvest fills up about two small pails.

With the wastewater, I flush the toilet or water the plants.

Now that it’s summer and my 11-year-old son plays from sunup to sundown, his evening bath yields twice this amount of “grey water.” My teenaged son, though, won’t even entertain the idea of harvesting his own bathing runoff.

So while it feels like the driest of summer, the boughs shading our small garden are profuse with white and pink blossoms. Plants, thank God, don’t go through adolescence and just drink in silence the grey water I spill.

I’m stoic about this generation disconnect. I was in high school when I had a crash course on “funny science,” as my teenager sniffs.

One of my aunts raised guavas legendary for their sweetness and aroma. During one visit, I couldn’t find a waste can to dispose of my used napkin. When I found my aunt, pickling some greens in her dirty kitchen, she told me to give the packet to a helper.

That was how I discovered that my aunt soaked used napkins in kitchen wastewater. She and her helpers drew from this barrel to water her thriving orchard of guava trees. Guavas, as you can guess, never quite recovered their old appeal with me.

But this simple science of reusing to benefit from waste is far from simple-minded.

According to a Mar. 5, 2009 Sun.Star Zamboanga article, recycling wastewater is sound economically and ecologically. “Each member of an urban household uses at least 100 liters of water for drinking, washing and bathing. Of this volume, about 90 percent is disposed into the environment as wastewater (grey water).”

The article quoted the findings of a research and development (R&D) firm accredited by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). Flushing a toilet requires from 20 to 40 liters of water. If there are five persons in a household, 200 liters are used on an average for their daily functions. Since they will be throwing out some 180 liters anyway, why not flush the toilet or water the plants in the process?

The R&D firm had even more interesting observations. Laundry wastewater was a good liquid fertilizer for tilapia ponds. Pechay thrived better from a mixture of 90 percent tap water and 10 percent human urine than if sprinkled only with tap water. A drink consisting of 90 percent of kitchen wastewater and 10 percent of human urine is quite a hit among sweet potatoes.

The logic is undeniable but will it work? Will picky shoppers still buy pricey organic produce if they knew where that slightly acrid whiff came from? The math of conserving water flow doesn’t really kick in until there’s a 24-hour interruption in water supply and the taps just gush air.

Deprivation seems to be the only teacher we heed. In his scifi classic, “Dune,” Frank Herbert invented a desert planet forced by the scarcity of water to imbue this most precious of resources with political and religious, even mystical, power.

To survive a hostile environment, the natives called Fremen devise a stillsuit to save what little moisture a living body gives off to replenish back the organism. “(The stillsuit) is basically a micro-sandwich… the skin contact-layer’s porous. Perspiration passes through it… Salt’s reclaimed… Reclaimed water circulates to catchpockets from which you draw it through this tube… Urine and feces are processed in the thigh pads.”

At the core of the native genius for survival is a simple lesson. Yet, even though it raises survival to the exactness of science, the stillsuit, which loses no more than a “thimbleful of moisture” a day, is not the key to the desert planet’s survival.

It lies in the native equating his welfare with the survival of the tribe.

So when a warrior dies, the body belongs to the dead but his “water” is harvested by the tribe. When a warrior cries for a man he has slain honorably in battle, the tribe whispers about the act of reverence in “giving moisture to the dead”.

At its dirtiest and foulest, our waste reveals where we are going.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 28, 2010 issue of “Matamata”


Jason Y. said...

This is a very good idea. It might be a good idea to make it more convenient for your kids to participate by putting a large bucket or barrel somewhere in the house where they can dump their greywater. The walk from the shower to the garden is always too far for these teenagers. Better yet I just let them leave it in the shower so the helper can dump it later.

It would be good if Cebu architects or engineers start to implement dual piping systems in construction. The MEPZ, I read somewhere, has canals to catch rainwater.

Also, just a caution to using greywater. This is also a source of groundwater contamination due to the phosphates in shampoo and soap. These chemicals will seep into our water table (as if Cebu has any left!). So it's a good idea to recycle, but the city needs a system or network for management if they want fullscale implementation for thousands of people.

Mayette Q. Tabada said...

Hi, Jason!

Daghang salamat for sharing your very well-informed reaction.

I'm hoping our candidates address the water issue. Or we, voters, should scrutinize them for their stance on this.

On the other hand, I think we should also think about how we, citizens, can help conserve and manage our use of water. Thanks for that input on the contaminants found in laundry or bathing greywater.

We tried an organic detergent last December. But it's hard to sustain an organic habit since the commodities found on the market are still way beyond the reach of our budget.

May I suggest sharing your views about water conservation with others, too? If you'd like to share your views, you might consider emailing the opinion editor, Bong Wenceslao, at He runs readers' reactions, specially if these concern public issues and run no longer than 1,500 characters with space.

Cheers and have a good holy week!