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I’ve been in a state of shock for the past few weeks. A state of disbelief.

When the water bill arrived, I had to look at the figures at least twice. Then, still doubtful, I walked out to the front yard to check the water meter.

The water company had got the reading correct. How could this be?

I’ve been having five-litre bucket-baths since July 14. Our water usage should have plummeted. And it hasn’t. So, since the bill arrived, I have been trying to figure out how our household’s water-use has changed, and why it hasn’t dropped despite my committment to using less water for personal hygiene. This is what I’ve come up with:

Less water:

Showers:

I’ve replaced my long showers with five-litre bucket-baths. In addition, my partner’s work moved to a new building with better facilities, and, because he rides to work, he is able to have a shower when he arrives at the office in the morning, instead of when he gets home at the end of the day.

Garden:

As it’s been a wet winter, we’ve not had to water our vegetable garden very often.

More water:

Bath:

Our little girl outgrew the baby bath and she has been washing in a few inches of water in our big bath two or three times a week.

Laundry:

Our child has also been responsible for a big increase in our washing.  She has been churning through cloth nappies, bibs, face washers and other clothes, the outcome of her eating “solid” food and turning into a pint-sized explorer.

Cleaning:

Now that baby is entering the toddler phase, our house needs cleaning far more than it used to (sigh). That means mopping the tiled areas, cleaning the bathroom and wiping down surfaces in the kitchen (and everywhere else in the house that little fingers can reach).

So despite my committment to having bucket-baths, I haven’t managed to reduce our water consumption. But does this mean I have failed?

I’d answer: no. I’ve learnt several valuable things from this challenge.

First, I’m taking it as a great demonstration of how quickly water usage can change, as well as an opportunity to better appreciate these changes. If I hadn’t undertaken this experiment, I wouldn’t have seen the impact of our extra water use (mostly caused by our baby). I hope that in the future I’ll be more aware of how our behaviour can have a big impact on our overall water use.

At the same time, I’ve become more conscious of a continually running tap, wherever it might be (kitchen, bathroom sink, etc).

Second, my perspective on showers has changed – I appreciate them far more than I used to. While I’ve gone back to having normal showers, I reckon that they’re shorter than what they had been. A few minutes under the flowing spout seems luxurious after bathing in a meagre five litres of water.

I used to tell myself that I needed to have a long shower for a variety of reasons, including:

… to wake up in the morning.”

“… to get clean.” (How clean do I really need to be? And am I going to be drastically cleaner after a 12-minute compared to a two-minute shower?)

… to soothe my soul after a long or hard day.”

And beyond these reasons, I’ve been good at telling myself that I deserve a long shower. It’s my little treat. Sure, water is precious, but this is just a little reward for “this” or for “that”. Never mind that what I “deserve” has steadily grown over the years, and never mind that I’m also good at giving myself other little rewards during the day (another cup of coffee, a second helping of cake…). This exercise has shown me how easily I can fool myself into indulging in luxuries, in putting myself on a pedestal, of setting up a little kingdom for myself within my home. It’s all too easy to make myself Queen “for a day”, which quickly becomes every day.

As a Christian who believes that every bit of of life belongs to God, and that I can worship God in every part of my life and living, there is another dimension to this issue of my water use.

I’ve realised that my primary relationship with water isn’t about me as a consumer. Matthew Farrelly in “A Covenant with the Earth” explains that God wants my place and role on earth to be characterised by humble service, which is described in a similar way to a priest’s service in the temple.

He explains: “We have been placed within creation to mediate God’s presence, embody God’s posture, and enact God’s purposes on the earth.” Said differently: I’m not supposed to possess water and value it for how I can use it; I’m called to offer it back to the Creator in worship. In his great book, “For the Beauty of the Earth” Steven Bouma-Prediger in explains that a big part of my worship is about me being thankful to God for creation, including water.

So, what could this worship and service response mean for me? From washing and cleaning, to work and play, all of these form part of my worship of God. Said differently, I can serve God in the humble example of Jesus in everything I do.

Farrelly writes:

…we ought not to regard any of our earthly labors as profane or secular, but as sacred service to God on behalf of the world.”

God cares about how I live in the world. From how I scrub our floors, to how I write this article.

As if Farrelly knows of my once private weakness, he goes on to ask a question that cuts to the core of my thoughts and behaviour about water, and succeeds in making me squirm:

What we do with creation [i.e. water] matters to God. Do we seek to work and shape it faithfully and beautifully in relationship with God and his purposes for the world, or, perversely, to satisfy our selfish desires?”

Do I shower for my own enjoyment, for my own selfish ends? Is it all about me? Or in humility and gratitude, can I be thankful for the clean, sparkling liquid that comes out of my tap, praise God for the opportunity to have a wash, and be more careful with it in response?

And in Australia, when I remember the scarcity of fresh water, (with the ABS reporting that “most of Australia is classified as semi-arid or arid”) I am even more thankful and humbled at this gift from God.

This is important, because God isn’t saving us out of the world. I hold onto the ancient words of the Prophets and the hope of Jesus who began the work of bringing in God’s Kingdom. In this I can believe with Farrelly that my care for water, as with everything else, can take place:

…at the foot of the Cross, where we grasp that the old is passing away, and that all things—people, creatures, and the land—are becoming new.”

This isn’t an easy or clear-cut story. Tomorrow morning when I go to have a wash, I’ll again face the choice between my own greed and selfishness, or taking another Way. While the immediate enjoyment of a self-indulgent shower could entice me to luxuriate, it’s my hope that in this and other ways I’ll choose to learn of the joy and peace that comes with worshipping God through my actions of savouring and saving these drops.

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So says Viraphone Viravong, director general of the Laos energy and mines department.

Jonathan Watts reports in a Guardian article that Laos has sought regional approval for it’s first major hydropower development on its stretch of the mighty Mekong River.

Yet, this energy won’t provide local (Laos) industry with cheap energy, on the contrary, 90 percent of it will be sold to the neighbouring countries of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Watts explains that this move is part of a broader plan by the Laos Government to use more of its natural resources to generate finance. He continues:

According to Viravong, 20% of Laos’ GDP will come from hydropower and mining by 2020, up from about 4% today.”

Fair enough?

Yet, the complexities of growth, development and sustainability begin to reveal themselves with more information about the Mekong and the countries on its banks. For example, this dam is one of eleven proposed for the lower part of the Mekong. And, these aren’t the first dams for the river either: China has already heavily dammed the upsteam section.

It isn’t just conservation groups who are concerned with this mass damming program. Organisations like Oxfam Manna Gum, and coalition group Save the Mekong are united with a shared concern for the impact that these dams will have on local residents, such as the numerous fishing communities whose livelihoods depend on the fish that traverse the waters.

But there is without a doubt an environmental aspect to this issue as well. Fish are going to be affected. Sedimentation is a concern.

Watts explains,

Four of the world’s 10 biggest freshwater fish migrate up the Mekong to spawn. Among them is the Mekong giant catfish, which is the size of a bull shark, and the Mekong stingray, which can weigh up to 600kg.”

When asked about the environmental impact, Viravong responded: “If we do it ourselves, only cheap energy from hydropower will do.”

What does it mean for Australians to help our neighbours? What if our Government contributed to subsidising sustainable energy for developing countries like Laos? Do we have a responsibility for the fishing communities, and for the fish of the Mekong?

For more information check out “Preserving Plenty” a report by Oxfam/Manna Gum.

For a photo of the biggest river fish I’ve ever seen, go here.

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We’ve recently been away for the weekend, and it wasn’t a difficult decision to relax my self-imposed bucket bath campaign for the duration. (See here for the background story.)

To turn on the tap and have hot water pouring out in abundance was simply divine.

A brief doubt flickered through my mind as I reminded myself that the house relied on tank water. My response: “Never mind, it’s been raining all weekend!”

So, I made the most of these showering opportunities. They were a stark contrast with the never-enough-water-left-to-wash-everything situation I’ve been facing these last few weeks with my bucket-bathing, especially when it’s a day to wash my hair as well. My feet have been sorely neglected, which is OK now, but wait for summer.

While we were away I also indulged in reading a historical romance novel – set in the time of Queen Elizabeth I (during the sixteenth century).

Reading this book made me wonder what Queens, Kings and other nobility would have done to wash. I can imagine that it was sitting in a hot tub with the luxury of a servant standing behind dousing you with pitchers of water.

Not too bad, especially when compared to what the peasants and lower classes did: perhaps one wash a year. Those who lived near rivers would have an outdoor wash when it was warm.

When looking at these two groups, it’s clear that those of us in modern developed countries have most in common with the nobility of old. Instead of a servant at our beck and call in bathroom matters, we’ve bent copper and aluminium to service our liquid needs.

At the turn of a handle we’ve got pure clean water, easily adjusted to the right temperature, pouring over us. And none of this pitcher at a time business – we’ve got our pouring water for as long as we like. It is lavish and decadent beyond what the poor and even nobility in the old days could have imagined.

While the upper classes of old would have had a pretty good bathing experience, can you imagine the expressions of wide-eyed wonder on their faces if they had seen a bathroom like yours or mine?

It’s a reminder to me about how much has changed in our world.  Today there are hundreds of millions of people living at a standard greater than the Kings and Queens of yesteryear, and there are billions more who aspire to. But the question is: how many Kings and Queens can our world sustain?

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Have you been baptised?

My baptism was a gentle sprinkling over my forehead when I was a wee baby.

Jesus got a thorough dunking by John in the Jordan (Matthew 3:13-7, Mark 1:9-11).

As I think of these sacred moments, the song by Alison Krauss rings through my mind…

“O sinners, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down, O sinners let’s go down, down in the river to pray.”

In our ancient Judeo-Christian history, water is a powerful theme.

Purity and cleansing. Baptism.

Some churches choose to use water instead of wine for Holy Communion/Eucharist.

Jesus and miracles involving water.

Jesus the living water (John 7:37-9).

Up until recently (as in last few hundred years). Most people didn’t have water at the turn of a handle in their bathroom or kitchen, or house for that matter. Water was a necessity of life and often difficult to acquire. Water, for quenching thirst, cooking, cleaning, keeping the animals, growing food..the list goes on.

What does water mean for us today? Sure, we still need water for drinking and so on. That hasn’t changed. But, it is readily available. Crystal clear, pouring in abundance out of our taps. No worries mate!

And yet, in this Guardian article “The River Jordan’s Shame“, Martin Palmer laments the degradation of these historically significant  – sacred to many – rivers. Rivers that have flowed through our Bible stories, flowed through the lands of our spiritual ancestors.

In the case of the Jordan River. It is a Jordan trickle. He writes, “I should have expected it. I had spent the previous two days meeting with Jordanian environmentalists and they had been telling me about their country’s massive water problems.”

Palmer optimistically discusses a growing movement to help bring environmental restoration to pilgrimage cities and rivers, driven by religious leaders and denominations.

He celebrates this move, saying, “[t]he combined power of religious and secular authorities can mean a clean-up programme inspired not just by economics but by a vision of nature as a gift of God for which we have a responsibility to care.”

Thanks to this dedicated and persistent bunch of people, let’s hope that one day soon there will be more water in the Jordan, and that a Sikh having a purifying wash in the Kali Bein, India, doesn’t catch salmonella.

Palmer points to other rivers and places, like the United States, where this movement is also occurring  but (I presume) without the need for the waterway to be a drawer of pilgrims. This is inspiring news. Yet, I wonder about our rivers.

The great Murray doesn’t feature in the Bible, explicitly. Does that mean we shouldn’t care for it?  What is driving a group of Catholics to care for the Hudson River in New York state?

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Enamel basinI’ve been talking for a while about having bucket baths instead of showers to save water. In part, my logic says that if I’ve gone to the other side of the world to study environmental ethics (Edinburgh, Scotland), I should be living out my values. Yet, anyone who knows me well would know that of all the choices our household has made this is by far the most self-sacrificial.

I find nothing more enjoyable than taking a long, hot, soothing shower. It is a little bit of luxury that I deserve, I tell myself. It is something that I’ve been saying for the last 20 years.

Yet, as I read the Water, water article in The Age newspaper, I am challenged again to curb my self-indulgent water habit. Gallagher writes that despite a good dose of rain in the last month (it was the wettest June since 2001), we can’t take a collective sigh of relief. She points to experts who reckon it will “take more than a decade of good rainfall to fill the state’s catchments.” And, while Melbourne Water’s John Woodland comforts us by pointing out that they are huge dams to fill, Gallagher notes that storage levels are also affected by logging and levels of moisture in the soil in the catchment areas. Simon Birrell, from the Melbourne Water Catchment Network explains that logging not only reduces the levels of water flowing into dams but also increases bushfire risks.

It all seems all so overwhelming. It pours in June and yet it isn’t good enough. We have big dams, but we’ve created a rod for our own backs by allowing logging in these important areas. What can I do in response? Should I embark on another challenge to curb my water use?

My first response is no. If I opt for a bucket bath I fail at the first hurdle because I simply don’t have the infrastructure. You see, I have a good enamel bowl, but no enamel jug. And it has to be a matching set before I can begin this venture.

On the other hand, this isn’t just about the level of our dams (sitting at 33.7% currently). It’s about what I am saying I think is important through my actions. Even if our dams were 80% full, I don’t really need to have that five – or twelve – minute shower.

We can look at this bucket bath issue from another point of view. And this is where it moves from a commitment to an interesting challenge. We use 138 litres of water a person a day in our household (see target155). That is 413 litres a day shared between three people. (Some may say I’m cheating by counting our 8 month old daughter in that calculation. But I reckon that with all the extra cleaning, cooking, loads of nappies and other wash, as well as a bath once or twice a week, she is definitely contributing to our water use.) The challenge becomes seeing just how much damage my showers are doing to our water use compared with my new bucket baths.

The challenge: I’m going to use a basin and a little bowl (pictured), until I can locate a white-with-blue-edging enamel jug. The basin holds 5 litres of water. That is the limit for my bucket baths. Five litres. Five.  When our next water bill comes in, we can do a comparison. That’s assuming I can stick to my resolve and opt for a scant wash instead of a luxurious hot downpour.

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