Water consumption: a Dubai family turns off the taps for a weekend

With the UAE is one its highest consumers of water in the world, we tend to take running clean water for granted — until it's not there. Alice Haine and her family are put to the challenge of just using bottled water.

Tabitha Rayer, 6, Tasker Rayer, 3, and their mother Alice Haine water the grass in the garden of their home with bottled water during their experiment using just bottled water for a weekend. Razan Alzayani / The National
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We drink it, wash in it, clean and cook with it and nurture our gardens with it. Without it, we cannot exist.

But despite being a land of desert and sparse rainfall, the UAE is one of the highest water users in the world, with a daily consumption rate of 350 litres a person – 100 litres more than the global average.

And 72 per cent of the nation’s water use comes from groundwater, which is being extracted at 23 times its recharge rate. Experts fear those reserves will be depleted in just 20 years, especially with a rapidly growing population.

At the Future Cities Conference this month, regional delegates warned that the situation is so severe, future wars will be fought over water rather than other resources, such as oil.

It begs the question: how could we survive without it?
With this mind, The National set me a challenge. Could my family live without running water for an entire weekend?

The rules were set out: we could not use any water from the tap, and the dishwasher and washing machine had to remain switched off.

We could bathe, clean and cook with as much bottled water as we needed. The only exception, for hygiene reasons, was flushing the toilet.

I broke the news to my secondary-schoolteacher husband, Stuart, 37, and our two children, Tabitha, 6, and Tasker, 3.
"Why are we doing this?" my husband asked.

“To assess how dependent we are on a utility system that allows us to turn on a tap to drink, wash and clean without a second thought,” I said.

The World Water Organisation says only 20 per cent of the global population has access to running tap water, so it was time to understand the extent to which the privileged few take this precious resource for granted.

It is not that we drink more water in the UAE than people elsewhere, it is because we use more to water our green spaces and wash our cars.

It is barely 50 years since the water seller who delivered by tanker or donkey cart was retired, thanks to the introduction of the UAE’s domestic water pipes.

But there was no tanker delivery to ensure I had enough water for my weekend experiment, just a trip to the supermarket where I bought six boxes of a dozen 1.5-litre bottles.

That made 108 litres for a family of four for two days – well below the 2,800 litres that the national average says we should require.

Thankfully, a friendly supermarket worker helped to cram the six boxes into my Nissan Juke, which was certainly not designed to be a water cart.

On Friday morning, the two-day test began. Kettles for tea and coffee were boiled, hands and teeth washed, the dishes soaked and kitchen surfaces wiped – all with bottled water.

When we headed to the beach for a children’s birthday party, we loaded two bottles into the boot – far from enough to wash sandy bodies at the end of the morning. There is nothing more uncomfortable that climbing into a car with sand encrusted on every limb.

Back home, we had an hour to wash and change before heading out with friends for lunch.

And this is where we hit our first stumbling block. Washing alone was nigh on impossible, bearing in mind we all needed to rinse our hair, so showering became a family affair.

“Great, a water fight,” the children screamed, excited at the prospect of being able to pour endless bottles of cold water over their parents’ heads.

Bottle lids were pierced to allow the water to be squirted. Then, using a handful of water to wet our hair and lather it in shampoo, the torturous process began.

We screamed from the sting of soap in our eyes and screamed again as cold water cascaded over our heads.
Finally, as clean as we could be with one 18-litre box of water to wash the four of us, we headed to lunch, half-an-hour late.
In the restaurant, we shared a bottle of water between us to wash our hands, taking turns to take it to the bathroom.

Later, the chore of boiling kettles to fill a bath for the children before bed began to take its toll.
"It's still not hot enough," they wailed as they sat in ankle-deep water – a far cry from the neck-deep baths they indulge in on a daily basis.

In the evening, my husband and I went to bed early to avoid the inevitable fight over the washing up – a chore we gave up years ago when we realised investing in a dishwasher would ensure a long and harmonious marriage.

Day two and the cleaner arrived, taking the news that she would not be turning on the tap in her stride. It took her two dozen 1.5-litre bottles and an extra hour to clean our three-bedroom villa.

“Very difficult,” she told me later – and the lack of water certainly had an effect on the level of cleanliness. Floors and windows were smeared with streaks rather than glistening.

By the early afternoon we were all starting to feel a little grubby. A sweaty morning in the park coupled with an energetic play session at a friend’s house had left the children resembling the urchins of Oliver Twist.

They needed a quick wash but, unbelievably, the six boxes were finished. We needed more water.
Back to the shop we went, where 10 five-litre bottles were loaded into the car.

A typical Saturday afternoon would usually involve a paddling-pool session – but with only 50 litres to get us to the end of the day, that option was discarded.

Instead, the children filled the paddling pool with used bottles for bottle fights and drumming sessions.
To keep the momentum going, we decided to water our slightly browning garden.

Punching holes in the bottoms of the 5-litre bottles, we walked up and down, gently showering the brittle grass, but could give the plants nothing like enough to keep a garden alive long-term.

And it seemed so wasteful to use fresh water to douse the garden. As my daughter pointed out, we could use all the discarded grey water from the washing up, cooking or energetic bath sessions to complete the task.

It was then that it struck me that the children had been far more receptive to the whole experience than my husband and I.
While we had avoided showering on the second day because, quite frankly, we couldn't be bothered, the children had taken it all in their stride.

And when it came to absent-mindedly turning on the tap – because it’s something we all do without thinking – it was my daughter who would shout: “Mummy, the tap”.

It reminded me of the many water shortages I'd experienced as child growing up in Mauritius. If the power was turned off for a cyclone, the water pumps lay idle and we'd be without water for days at a time.
And without the dignity of using toilets.

Any threat of a power cut and my mother would fill all the baths and insist water from the storage tank was used conservatively.
I don't recall the experience troubling me at all, but as my husband and I struggled on through the last few hours of our two-day trial, it made me realise my parents may not have been as casual about it as I was.
"It was a nightmare," my mother reminded me later on the phone.

Something our two-day experiment highlighted more than
anything was what a true luxury tap water is. Getting water into the house was a logistical and physical hassle and it stopped us taking it for granted.

We must remind ourselves that at least one billion people are forced  to walk three hours a day to obtain drinking water.
And by 2050, according to the Dubai School of Government, per-capita water availability in the Middle East-North Africa region will fall by half, "with serious consequences for the region's already stressed aquifers and natural hydrological systems".

So maybe it is time for us to reconsider how we use water.
By the end of the two days we had used 150 litres – a staggering 2,650 litres less than the national daily average for the same period.

Even so, those bottles cost us Dh140, almost as much as the water bill of Dh162 for an entire month. Our mains water is not just plentiful but also heavily subsidised.

It was an uncomfortable experience and reducing our water consumption to that level is simply not sustainable if we are to keep up the norms of a UAE lifestyle.

The car wasn’t washed, the garden was barely watered and we didn’t even try to wash our clothes. Plus we all felt a lot grubbier than usual.

Perhaps for now I might reduce those neck-high baths the children indulge in and wash the dishes in a sink of water rather than under the tap. It's a start.