Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE


@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Dig a compost pit, build a green urinal and six other tips on waterproofing your home and garden à la Helen Moffett’s 101 Water Wise Ways

Three provinces in South Africa have been declared national disaster zones because of drought.

The way we think about water needs to change, and fast. This is especially true for those of us who have running water and flush sanitation piped into our homes. For millions of South Africans, water is already a precious resource that costs toil to collect and fuel to heat.

Our middle-class expectations that water will gush steaming from our dozens of indoor taps 24/7 are going to look as bizarre to future generations as the spectacle of Cleopatra bathing in asses’ milk. Our Roman-orgy relationship with water is over. This book will hopefully help to alleviate water panic and distress.

A “can-do” compendium, it’s meant to be a guide, not prescriptive – not all solutions or tips are one-size-fits-all. Think of it as an ally in your fight to save water and part of your survival kit, along with the firstaid box; Valium for water-worriers.
Helen Moffett is a poet, editor, feminist activist and academic, her publications include university textbooks, an anthology of landscape writings, a cricket book (with the late Bob Woolmer and Tim Noakes), an animal charity anthology (Stray, with Diane Awerbuck) and the Girl Walks In erotica series (with Sarah Lotz and Paige Nick under the nom de plume Helena S. Paige). She has also published two poetry collections – Strange Fruit (Modjaji Books) and Prunings (uHlanga Press), which won the 2017 SALA prize. Recent projects include the Short Story Day Africa anthology, Migrations, and a memoir of Rape Crisis. She lives in Noordhoek, Cape Town.


If you have a garden, consider yourself lucky. This is going to be a great ally in your water-wise mission. Any kind of outdoor space will help, especially if it has a washing line and place to store containers.

TIP 25
Dig a compost pit. It may sound off-track, but this will save you water. There are many composting systems, some involving earthworms, special containers (these are good for tiny gardens with little accessible soil), rotating drums and more. I simply dig a hole about a metre deep and a metre across, and dump everything biodegradable in it. Why? There are a thousand excellent reasons to keep garbage out of landfills and to feed organic matter back into the soil, but for now: it will save washing up. If you are shaken by the notion of licking your plate, or getting the family dog to do so (see Tip 64), then scraping your plate into the kitchen compost bucket after meals is the next best thing.

I compost fish bones and skin – tomato plants love these – and also chicken bones, but I can get away with this because it’s a rare occurrence. Generally, meat bones should be kept out of compost heaps unless you want visits from neighbouring dogs; bread might likewise attract rats. Consider thrifty ways to use leftovers – chicken carcasses for stock, and so on (see Tip 61) – or resort to the dustbin.

A compost pit is also a suitably earthy place to dispose of blood (from a mooncup, for instance, or biodegradable sanitary pads) or vomit. Sprinkle a good layer of soil or mulch over afterwards. Note that urine is good for compost heaps, but for reasons too complicated to go into here, this is not a safe place to dump your dump.

TIP 26
Dig a small, deep fire pit in which to burn certain kinds of refuse: food-soiled paper and cardboard (napkins, pizza and cake boxes), “pee” paper, used wet wipes and so on. Don’t burn any form of plastic or polystyrene. Obviously, proceed with extreme caution when lighting any fires: you don’t want to burn down your house or the neighbourhood.

TIP 27
Construct a home-made grey/black water filter if you have a veggie garden or plants you want to keep alive: Google will give instructions, but I made a small brick enclosure in my garden and layered stones, broken bricks and chunks of wood into it, then topped it with gravel, sand and mulch. This can receive your black water (see Tip 15). Note that some plants will thrive on this, others will hate it; this kept my spinach and chard going right through the drought, but the tomatoes turned up their toes.

TIP 28
Build a green urinal in your garden if you have the space. This is a tip from the National Trust in Britain, which has millions of visitors to its properties, and came up with this plan to stop half of them from flushing. All that’s needed is a bale of straw and a modesty screen. Set the straw down in a sheltered part of the garden away from any water sources. Ask feed stores or nurseries if they have any straw spoiled by mould or weeds – they may give it to you for free – or make your own bale. I compacted dead grass into a rectangle about one foot high and three feet long. Set up a waist-high screen of sticks around the straw – you can construct your own (I used discarded bamboo) or buy from a garden centre. The straw or grass deodorises the urine, the urine helps decompose the straw, and after several months, you can use it as mulch in the garden, and start again with a fresh bale.

TIP 29
You might already own equipment that could help in the quest to save and harvest water. Check your garage, attic or storage space for useful camping and gardening gear: camping showers, stoves and washers, garden sprayers, jerrycans, foot pumps, trailers, wheelbarrows or trolleys for moving containers of water around – all these are gold. You might have dustbins, tarpaulins, canvas tents, wheeled suitcases, cooler boxes, funnels and much more that could come in handy. And you can’t have too many buckets. There should be one in every shower and next to every toilet.

Bonus tip: visit camping stores to get ideas, and draw up a wish list (see p. 102) of equipment, along with a price list, so you can plan your water budget to fit your needs and pocket. Be aware that some “dream machines” are not as ideal as they sound: air-to-water machines, for instance, are expensive, noisy, gobble up electricity and need high levels of humidity to be effective.

TIP 30
If you have a pool, turn it from a liability into an asset: it can become a valuable water-storing facility. Set up a system that enables as much rainwater as possible to flow into it, cover it, and use this as back-up for flushing.

Bonus tip for the future: consult an expert about turning your pool into an eco-pond that requires no chemicals to maintain. This could become a beautiful garden feature with aquatic plants and friendly frogs to catch flies and mosquitoes. Keep an area clear so the family can dip in and cool off or do a spot of water aerobics. If you want to swim lengths, plan on doing so at the gym or public pool.

WARNING! All the usual warnings about pool safety apply even more in drought conditions: thirsty animals and curious children will be more than usually attracted to water. Be 100% vigilant and make sure that your safety features are in apple-pie order.

TIP 31
Get inventive. Tie a funnel to the “elbow” of your satellite dish and run a pipe down from it into a container. Harvest the water from your office air-conditioner. Set up your planters to act as mini water tanks. Save catering-size containers and paint-tins.

TIP 32
Stock up on the following toiletries: antiperspirant (Mitchum is the one exception to my no-brandrecommendation – worth every penny), dry shampoo, leave-in hair conditioner, disinfectant, hand sanitiser, hand lotion, talc (not just for Grandma: good for no-shower days), wet wipes.

Bonus tip: on the topic of wet wipes, remember that you shouldn’t flush these – NOT EVEN WHEN IT SAYS YOU CAN ON THE PACKET. Try to get biodegradable ones and put these in the compost, or make your own (there’s a great recipe under Resources). Note that “biodegradable” and “compostable” do NOT mean flushable.

Book details


Please register or log in to comment