Water Conservation On This Desert Island

In my mind, the term “desert island” was just a synonym for a remote tropical island. I never gave any thought to the word “desert” by itself, but I should have. At least, it should have made me think of issues associated with water, issues like: Where does it come from?  Is there always enough?  Is it pure enough to drink?  What happens if we run out?

*click for image credit

We are lucky – we bought a house that gets government water and also has a cistern, so we have options. But options cause angst.

We’ve been drinking the government water with no problems, because we’re pretty sure it is treated to make it safe to drink. However, some local people say, “There is no way I would drink government water – all those chemicals give you cancer.” Could they be right? Who’s to know?

These same locals say, “It is much better to use cistern water, because the rain is pure.” Fair enough, but we thought of all the things that might land on the roof or in the gutters and wash into the cistern and shuddered. Who needs all those extras? But lots of people use cistern water exclusively. Why couldn’t we?

We decided the cistern should be cleaned out, especially since it was almost empty due to a prolonged drought. Not so fast. The lid was rusted shut. Scraping and chiseling did not budge it. We hired a man with a heavy duty portable grinder who was able to remove a lot of the rust, but it didn’t help. Ultimately, he had to saw through the concrete and tile, destroying the lid. Now we need a new lid, for which we need a metal frame from the welder, and concrete filler (done by our pool guy), and tile to match the rest of the floor.

sparks cistern_WWLOR

I dropped a metal weight down on a string, thinking I’d measure the depth of the cistern, but soft goop stopped the weight from going all the way to the floor. I don’t want to know what that soft goop consists of. When all this was going on, a frog climbed up a pipe and escaped through the opening. The same locals said frogs are a good sign, because if the water was contaminated, they could not live in it. I’m skeptical, to say the least.

Having done all this, I’m told you should be able to just whoosh out a cistern through a drain close to the floor and get it pretty clean. I don’t know about that either…

By this time, it has rained, so the cistern is close to full. Still, we will eventually get it cleaned out, and retested, and be able to use it if necessary, with or without bleach or boiling. And this time, we’ll grease the lid, and open it every few months, so it won’t get rusted shut again.

I thought this all started about three weeks ago, but really it has been six weeks. And my friends wonder what I do with my time!

Cisterns and piped water are only some of the issues…

You can buy bottled water from the store, but there is no recycling facility.
Who wants to contribute to polluting the landscape?

You can take your own bottles to a facility and have them refilled from a tap there.
Can that be a better solution?

You can collect rain water for use later, but open still water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Absolutely, we don’t want to nurture mosquitoes.

Lots to think about, especially since water is such a precious resource. All of this takes me back to my early childhood on the farm, where no one supplied water to us. Every drop was collected in a tiny cistern, hauled by hand from a well or a slough (pond), or melted from snow.

*click for image credit

Automatically, we used it economically. We washed dishes in a dishpan rather than filling the sink. We heated water on the stove, rather than running it until it was hot. We rinsed the dishes all at once with boiling water from the kettle. Once done, we threw the dishwater on the flowers. They’d rather have used water than no water at all.

We shampooed our hair in the sink, not the shower. We turned the shower on just long enough to get wet, washed with a facecloth, and then turned the water on again for a brief rinse. We washed clothes in a wringer washer, starting with the whites and using the same water for subsequent loads. We opened our toilet tanks and lengthened the chain between the handle and the stopper to regulate how much water is used with each flush.

All of this saved a lot of water and was good training for island life. I can conserve just as well, if not better, than the next gal. Now, if only I can get this cistern conundrum straightened out…

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Ok, islanders – what’s your best water conservation tip?

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Val Zacharias

About Val Zacharias

Val and her husband Bob retired to Nevis (the small relative of St. Kitts, in the Leeward Islands) in January 2013. They often sit on their porch and smile and say, “This was a good decision.” – though never on those days they have to spend dealing with Revenue Canada. Val is unable to do nothing, so she spends her time doing stained glass, making vases and hangings out of palm fibre, playing bridge, and having a go at baby golf (there are 10 tees and 2 greens). That’s when she’s not fixing things (like the automatic gates that keep out the cattle, sheep, and goats), killing cockroaches with a hammer (because otherwise they get up and walk away), and collecting/trying out all possible remedies for insect bites (many of which somehow appear when there have been no insects in sight). Her dad used to say that in Northern Canada, the mosquitos may be too big to go through the screens, but they bring their little ones along and shove them through the holes, where they grow up and wreak havoc inside. Val has found the same to be true here.

The grocery stores are interesting. They only occasionally have prunes, for instance, but filo (Val thought it was phyllo) dough is readily available. That requires work, though, so it stays on the shelves.

Val has found that the key to living on Nevis is to start all conversations with, “Good morning, good morning, how are you?” and to actually be interested in the answer. People are very friendly and amazingly helpful. The 22 months they have spent on Nevis feels like a nice long summer so far – one nice long summer.

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7 thoughts on “Water Conservation On This Desert Island

  1. Our story exactly except we have no government water, and we drink our cistern water… using, perhaps, one chlorine tablet every six months. I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories of the frogs appearing in toilet bowls …yuk, yuk, yuk ! I have learned to trust what nature provides.

  2. We only have the cistern so we are pretty careful during dry season. We use an ultra violet filter as well as several other filters to clean it. Finding that about every four years it needs a clean out by power washing. It helps to keep gutters clean and screen over down spouts to keep frogs out, though they have been known to squat over them and release their eggs! This new invasive Cuban frog is a real nuisance and we kill all we find. Just spray them with lemon juice and they practically dissolve.

  3. Your comments about growing up on a farm preparing you for island life brought back memories of my childhood. I still do some of these water saving things even though we have plenty of water in Dominica-I have done them all my life from habit. I still turn off the water while brushing my teeth until I rinse the toothbrush and also the same with the shower while getting soapy. Since Erika did so much damage here we are rethinking our water system (government water plus a cistern). We are going to clean out our cistern & install a solar powered pressure pump so we can actually use the cistern water for something besides washing the car. I’m sure it will be an adventure what we find in there since it hasn’t been cleaned in over 10 years.

  4. Hi! I lived on my sailboat for three years, in Tortola for several months. I pretty much got compulsive about water conservation. To this day it is hard to watch how people who help me do dishes waste water in my kitchen!

    I enjoyed your post. At one point I had considered setting up a surgery center on Nevis. I understand how beautiful it is. Enjoy!

  5. My Dad set up a grey-water system from the laundry run-off. It was a series of 55 gal drums under the deck…filled by gravity. We used detergent safe for plants. When they filled up, a drip system of hoses went to the fruit and coconut trees down the side of the mountain. We had the BEST fruit trees…even in drought times. That man was genius!

  6. All your suggestions for conserving water are spot on. Island people grow up that way and I believe the rest of the western world is learning from the recent droughts that conservation and mindful thinking regarding water
    is the only answer. Enjoyed the post!

  7. I really enjoyed your article as I can relate to everything you are saying. I was born and raised on an island for the majority of my life but did spend 11 years in the US and 16 years on Grand Bahama where there is no shortage of water. On the island, as children when we returned from swimming we would shower in the garden with the hose so that the plants could be watered at the same time. Sometimes we would shower at local wells (so we saved the water in our cistern) and by the time we walked home we would be perfectly dry and ready to get dressed in our normal clothing. We used a bucket on a long rope to pull the water out of the well, which we hid in the nearby bushes along with shampoo and soap for our future showers. Those were simple and wonderful days. Maybe I should start showering in the garden again 🙂

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