please just trust me on this one…

We don’t have running water right now. We don’t know when we will again.

I’ve talked about stockpiling food and I will be posting soon about stockpiling other household goods like toiletries and paper products. But I have a great opportunity right now to talk about why everyone – in Greece and out – should stockpile water at home.

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Think over the past 12 hours of your life. Now imagine those same 12 hours, without water. You could not flush the toilet, wash your hands, wash the dishes, put water in the coffee pot, boil pasta, or do the laundry. Now multiply that by all the members of your household.

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How quickly would your bathroom become unpleasant? How quickly would you start spending money to eat out, money perhaps that you had not budgeted for that purpose? How soon before you start calling around to your friends to see if you can take a shower at their house?

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Now imagine that instead of 12 hours, it was 12 days. And instead of just your household, it was everyone in your town. And not just houses – restaurants, hotels, and other businesses without water as well.

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Food is relatively cheap, easy to store, and people can actually survive without it for a surprisingly long time. And if you’re just looking to survive, the bulk of food that you need to consume is relatively low. A handful of raisins per day can keep you alive for months. If that weren’t true, many, many Greeks would never have survived the German occumpation of Athens during WWII.

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Water, on the other hand, is also cheap, but is very difficult to store, because of the amount we use. Running water is efficient, because it is easily controlled – it is decanted at an adjustable rate into a basin, sink, or bathtub. But storage water is very difficult to use. It has to be decanted by hand – whether ladled or poured – it lacks adjustable water pressure, is not aerated, and can be very difficult to control. It takes considerably more bottled water to rinse dishes than it does running water.

Add to that that our labor-saving devices, like washing machines and dishwashers, often use less water (especially when we use the energy efficient features) than handwashing clothes and dishes.

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Furthermore, storage space – especially in a city apartment – is a very big issue for many people. The amount of water a typical American family of four uses in a week would fill our entire bedroom. S and I used 15 cubic meters of water over the last 8 weeks, and we were trying very hard to conserve. That’s a quarter of a cubic meter per day, assuming aerated, easily controlled water, in devices like a dishwasher that conserves water anyway. We simply cannot store very much water in our apartment; it will not fit.

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Even if you have the space, water can be difficult to store for other reasons. It must be kept in foodsafe containers if you plan to use it for drinking, cooking, or rinsing dishes that will be used for eating. Foodsafe containers are expensive, and large ones are hard to find.

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And there is another problem. Water is extremely heavy. Even just a single six-pack of 1.5 liter bottles is a pain to carry around. Add in water to flush the toilet and to cook and do dishes…. it’s very difficult to move it around from place to place.

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We went to my in-laws for the three-day weekend. When we came home Monday night, we discovered that the pipes had frozen. The pipes are located on the outside of the building, something that we did not know (we’ve only lived here since August, and the landlord never told us that). We should have known better than to trust the pipes not to freeze, I suppose, and we should have left the water running. But we were out of town, and we didn’t know that the temperature would go so low, and we didn’t know that the pipes are outside.

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The landlord says that we can’t do anything except wait for the temperature to go far enough above zero for long enough that the pipes melt. He says that the pipes are not accessible, so trying to warm them with a blow dryer, or wrap them in rugs as a friend suggested I try, would not work. According to the current weather forecast, we have at least six days without water to deal with here.

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It’s amazing how quickly priorities arrange themselves.

Showers are completely out of the question. So is the dishwasher and the washing machine.

Toilets can be flushed on an absolutely-necessary basis. Luckily there are only two of us living here.

Food that can be prepared without water is ideal. Leftovers, pre-packaged foods, and things that can be cooked in the oven are good options.

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Food that can be served in such a way as not to dirty plates unnecessarily – so eating leftovers out of the container, canned food out of the can, jarred food out of the jar.

Things that I usually avoid turn out to be the things I want: prepared, packaged foods; paper towels; paper plates.

We are avoiding salty foods or adding salt to things, because that will make us thirsty. We are drinking water, but we are being conservative with it.

Dishwashing by hand is on hold, except on an as-needed basis. I have a fork and spoon; S has a fork and spoon.

A tip I read once on FerFAL’s famous blog suggests putting plastic wrap onto a plate and serving food on top of that. I may use this tip; so far I’ve been sticking to containers as dishes.

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I did not have enough water stockpiled. There were several reason for this:

When we lived on the island, I was obsessive about stockpiling water. A significant proportion of our tiny little cottage was bottled water. The water went out all the time there, and we relied on that water constantly. But the island’s tap water was also dangerous to drink, so we bought bottled drinking water, and I saved the bottles and filled them with tap water for stockpiling (for washing, flushing, etc). So I had tons of bottles on hand.

1. Here, the tap water is fine. We don’t purchase water for drinking. That means I don’t have lots of water bottles or foodsafe containers for water.

2. The city water system is pretty good. Unlike the island system, which was incredibly poor and often went out multiple times over the course of a week, here it’s just a regular city water system that never goes down (so far). So I didn’t feel that fear of losing our water. And I also didn’t have the experience of having no running water in the past here to prompt me to store a lot of water.

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I did store some, but as always, like pretty much everyone who finds themselves without running water, I underestimated how much water we would need. (Need. Not want.)

We bought 30 bottles (1.5 L each) Monday night so that we would have good drinking water. I’m saving the bottles, of course, and as soon as I have running water again, both #1 and #2 are going to be solved. I will have bottles, and I will have motive.

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However, I know – and you should know too – that the 50 or 60 liters of water that I’ll be able to store in those bottles including the ones I already had are nowhere near enough.

Storing food but not water is asking for trouble. And while you can do okay without food, or with a very small amount of food, water is absolutely essential for anything over just a few hours.

It’s also good to remember that a water delivery system can fail at any time.

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Right now, I have a miserable headcold that I’ve had since January 4. For almost a month, pretty much the best relief I’ve been able to find has been hot steamy showers. I don’t get to have those anymore. And I’m not in the best mood, either. Water shortages happen when you have a fever, when you have food poisoning or diarrhea, when you have your period, when you need to look presentable at work, when you have houseguests staying for a week, and when you have no extra money for eating out – or even for buying bottled water. They happen to you at the same time as they happen to your neighbors and your friends. They happen to you at the same time as they happen to your plumber’s other customers, and your local supermarket’s other bottled water purchasers.

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They happen in the summer too – on the island, and in other areas of Greece where I’ve lived, they were worst in the summer. That means when you’re hot and sweaty. And if you are relying on your own garden for food, you could lose everything if you can’t water it during a heatwave.

After air, water is up there in importance. A water panic can escalate very quickly.

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Could a water shortage happen in Greece for economic crisis-related reasons? Why not? In other countries with severe economic problems, water delivery has suffered. It may continue to come out of the tap, but be undrinkable or be full of bleach if more expensive ways of purifying it aren’t available, as FerFAL describes happening in Argentina after the economic collapse there.. It may be available only at certain times of day – when you might be at work. It may not be available to higher floors in apartment buildings, if the pressure is low.

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Water is a tough subject, because while we have it, it’s abundant; it’s a bear to store; and it can lead to issues of actual survival when it’s not around. With some planning in advance, you can at least buy some time during which you can try to get a reliable water supply again.

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Meanwhile, I am grateful for a friend across town who offered us showers, and for our neighbor (whose pipes did not freeze, as they were here using the water all weekend) who refilled our bucket for toilet flushing, and offered to do so as many times as necessary. (But: water is not cheap in Greece. We are being extraordinarily careful with the water we are being given. And as soon as I have water again, I’ll be baking them some very nice thank-you gifts.)

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But please, trust me when I say this: store water. Water is unpredictable. We are currently experiencing the coldest weather in 27 years. Not just Greece; all of Europe. In Poland it’s -30 C. That’s not normal, pipes are freezing everywhere. You’ll be glad to have it when you need it.

Please read the comments for some excellent reader tips!!

(I took these photographs on various islands in Greece; mostly the island of Kimolos, but also Milos, Kythnos, and Ios.)

I’m editing this on to add:  it’s now Thursday night.  We bought bottled water Monday evening.  Tonight, we went back to the supermarket for some other things, and of course, their bottled water was almost completely sold out!  That’s never happened before here.  So clearly we are not the only ones.  There were only a few bottles of Evian and the other really expensive brands left.  We still have about 17 bottles left of the 30 we bought, thank goodness!

This post is linking up with:

Chic on a Shoestring Decorating

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