Somerset West epidemiologist and water quality expert, Dr Jo Barnes, addressing a Western Cape water quality summit at Kronenberg Estate in March 2012.

What can you do to save water? Quite a lot actually, but the interventions available to you, are divided into two broad categories: decreasing consumption and increasing reuse, both of which will result in a net decline in your consumption of water.

Municipalities, from which most of us get our potable water, routinely practise demand management in times of water scarcity. With dam levels in the Western Cape at or below 40 percent on average, it makes sense for the City of Cape Town to impose water restrictions that will result in a decline in consumption, and with the adoption of Level 3b restrictions last Thursday, a further step has been taken toward tightening the screws, and it won’t end there.

As dam levels fall, ever more draconian restrictions will be imposed including larger fines for transgressors, and a cripplingly expensive stepped tariff system. Therefore, any steps one can take to reduce net water consumption make sense.

It’s amazing just how much water one can save with a little forethought. Here are some obvious, but usually overlooked, suggestions for using less water.

Shower rather than bathing, and if showering, wet your body, turn off the taps, lather including hair, then rinse off under as gentle a stream as possible.

Either shower under the initial cold water if you can bear it, or collect that water in a bucket for toilet flushing. If you do not have access to your cistern to fill it up, flush by pouring directly into the toilet bowl.

Low-flow shower-heads are something of a double-edged sword. They need a good deal of water pressure to work properly, but municipalities routinely reduce water pressure in the reticulation infrastructure to reduce water-loss due to leaks, something the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) water research division’s Dr Keith Kennedy calls a low-tech – but effective – solution to the water shortage.

Finally, try to restrict your shower to as short a time as possible, with open taps.

Don’t leave the tap running while washing your hands. Wet your hands, turn off the tap, lather and wash well – that means rubbing briskly all over, including between your fingers with the other hand for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice – then rinse off under a small stream, and finally rinse the tap handle with a small handful of water to wash off any pathogens, swill out the basin, then close the tap.

The washing of the tap and swilling out of the basin is essential, according to Somerset West epidemiologist Dr Jo Barnes, to reduce the likelihood of pathogen build-up, and pathogens are the things that spread disease.

Dr Barnes also says that research has concluded that using anti-bacterial soap does not clean any better than ordinary soap and water and causes the build-up of resistance to the antiseptic compounds used in such soaps – they don’t make you any “cleaner.”

Effective hand cleaning does not rely on killing the organisms on your hands by chemical means. It rather relies on dislodging them and rinsing them away. Vigorous rubbing is much more successful than using disinfectant soaps.

Don’t leave the tap running while brushing your teeth. Wet your toothbrush then turn off the tap. Brush then spit before opening the tap, rinse with two small mouthfuls of water, rinse your toothbrush under a small stream, swill out the basin, then close the tap.

If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down. Well, yes and no, according to Dr Barnes: “If anybody in the household suffers from diarrhoea or a chronic illness – HIV/Aids, tuberculosis – or an eye or ear infection, always flush the toilet to remove these disease-causing organisms so that other inhabitants of the household are not exposed to them unnecessarily.

“A quick rinse of the toilet bowl also helps to reduce the attraction to flies, very efficient carriers of disease.”

Put a water displacement device – like a half-brick – into your toilet cistern, to reduce the amount of water used in each flush. You can also remove the float which keeps the valve at the bottom of the cistern until it drains completely, and regulate the amount of water you use in each flush, by simply lifting the flush handle.

Wash dishes less often, or use a modern, water efficient dishwasher. The older dishwashers are horribly water-inefficient. If you do use a dishwasher, only run it with a full load, and on the most water-efficient cycle possible.

If you do hand wash your dishes, it is entirely okay to wash less often, but if you do, rinse anything that might attract flies, and cover the dishes with a kitchen towel to keep flies at bay, until you wash. When you do wash up, either include the initial cold water in the washing water, or collect it in a bucket for later use.

Be sure to rinse the sink and the taps after you’ve let out the washing water, to prevent pathogen build-up. As Dr Barnes says: “Neglecting hygiene during a water shortage, in the belief that you’re saving water, is short-sighted. The consequences may be out of proportion to the amount of water saved.”

Only do full loads in your washing machine, and use the most water-efficient cycle that you can. and it is really okay to wear a shirt or a pair of jeans twice if you’ve not had a hot, sweaty day.

Inspect all of your water reticulation equipment, from the municipal water metre, up to every tap on the property. Repair dripping taps promptly, and if you suspect you have a leak, turn off all the taps tightly in the house, note the reading on the metre, and return 15 minutes later. If it has moved, it suggests you might have a leak. Get a plumber in to find it and fix it.

Report water leaks on public property or facilities to 0860 103 089 (choose option 2: water-related faults), or waterTOC@capetown.gov.za

Email your water saving tips to norman.mcfarlane@inl.co.za