Growing up in Belarus, I bathed once a week. Our whole family bathed in the same water once a week—all five of us. In the summer when we spent a lot more time outside and got a lot dirtier, we washed our feet every night. Again, we all used the same water. When I did engage in oral hygiene, I used one cup of water to rinse my mouth. Our faucet was never on for longer than five seconds. Mom washed dishes once a day and in cold water and, when done, dumped the greasy mixture on the flowers outside. Toilet was outside, a drop in. We harvested rain to water our greenhouses. Water wasn’t expensive, it was us who was poor. But unlike the electricity meter that dad illegally rolled back to reduce our bill, the water meter was out of reach. We had no choice but to use only what we really needed.
Our life made it easy not to use water and because everyone lived the same, there was nothing unusual about our relationship to it. Of course, we all longed for daily showers (about which we knew from TV) and kitchens with plumbing (like in cities), but we knew we had it good at home compared to our grandparents. While we had one sink with running water, they had none. Getting water from a well was actually not bad when it was not winter. But most of the time it was winter. In their houses, not using water was a way to preserve their health—they often rushed out barely wrapped enough against the arctic winter to quickly fill up their buckets. Not to mention the slips and falls on the ice and the neighbors’ hungry dogs confusing humans with food.
When dad installed a small water heater in the bathroom for us to wash our faces in warm water in the winter, it was pure luxury. Now, instead of boiling water in a kettle for half an hour, we had hot water on demand. But it wasn’t until I traveled to the U.K. at the age of nine that I became embarrassed about not using enough of water. After entering the house of my host family, I was taken to the bathroom. “This is how you turn on the shower,” said my host dad twisting the metal knob. I thought he thought I was a Maugli with no knowledge of modern civilization. I quickly became annoyed. “After you wet your body, turn the water off and soap yourself,” he continued. I had never showered before but knew from those who did that it wasn’t how they showered. He continued. “When you are ready to rinse, turn the water back on.” I couldn’t understand where he was heading with this “on and off” thing as he obviously lived in a much better house and had a lot more means than my family. Did my host family want to save water? Why? Were they poor? It wasn’t until my host dad told me to shower every day that I really became alarmed. Every day?! Why in the world would anyone want to shower every day but especially in a country where you don’t spend your days shoveling pig manure or weeding steamy greenhouses? Why shower when you don’t get dirty? Was he trying to tell me I stank? He just asked me to do what everyone else in his country was doing.
A few years later after immigrating to the U.S., I went through a similar drill but with my uncle. “It’s hot here,” he said about the unbearably hot and humid climate of South Carolina. “And because of that, you’ll need to shower once in the morning and once in the evening, otherwise, you’ll start stinking.” And because nobody in my family wanted to be a stinky immigrant, we complied. In South Carolina, we used water like we could never run out of it. We kept the faucet running while brushing our teeth, took twenty-minute-long showers, and washed dishes under a stream as strong as Niagara Falls. Dad even started irrigating grass.
Two decades of frivolous water use in the U.S. deadened my water sensitivity. By that time, I knew water was a scarce resource in some parts of the country, but I never felt it until Arizona. Arizona in the summer looked and felt like hell. Parched plants, thirsty animals so desperate that with each passing day with no rain javelinas got closer and closer to our house. If I broke down on an interstate with no water, I had a good chance of dying. I had even a greater chance of dying from a fire triggered by a chain dragging from someone’s truck. A whole new way of living, full of fear and anxiety.
In Arizona, I resorted back to my Belarus water use days to make myself feel like I wasn’t directly killing the state. With the Southwest being one of the driest parts of the country with no good projections for the future, I felt personally obliged to at least start paying attention to my water habits. I started keeping the water left from cooking vegetables. I started collecting grey water from the kitchen and using it to water plants outside. I started timing my showers and shutting water off when brushing teeth. I even stopped taking baths. Now my husband and I even occasionally skip showers (maybe more so to save on propane that the water heater eats up than on water, but you get the point). Flushing toilets? Only after number two.
With so much evidence of water scarcity now and tomorrow, I’m appalled at how little if any awareness is brought to this issue. While this part of the country will become uninhabitable in a couple of decades, the state and the country do nothing to prolong its life. I see nothing on TV, social media, or on the doors of bathroom stalls to tell me to use less. Nothing. I know many think that if they don’t experience a problem directly, it must be because it doesn’t exist. And it is easy to avoid experiencing many problems in this country because of our physical isolation from each other. We don’t even know what’s happening in a neighboring town.
So let me tell you about what’s happening next door–water crisis endemic in third world countries. Some hitchhike for miles to get to a clean source of water or any source of water. Some are so desperate, they use water from animal troughs. Others shower with bottled water (while many choose not to bother at all) and many die from lead and other heavy metals found in water. We are not that far from starting to kill each other over water. Although, I’m sure that’s already happening.
Water problems are numerous but so are the solutions. The least and the most obvious we can do is to stop creating golf courses and growing lawns in a desert. Also how about not growing cotton, one of the thriftiest crops in the world, in a desert? These solutions are just common sense, there are tons of others that will require more thinking.
Looking back at my early life, I don’t see it as primitive. I’m proud of the origins that instilled the use of only what is really needed. Not a drop more or less. Just what is really needed. And in a desert, we can’t afford to lose a drop more.