The Zen of saving water, even dishwater

IRAIA thoughts
IRAIA thoughts

If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them — Chief Seattle of the Dwamish, in his 1855 letter to US President Franklin Pierce.


When I’m billeted at a local seminar house or resort, or at a hotel in some foreign city, I often notice a small, courteously worded card posted on the bathroom door or by the bedside table. It basically says, “Please conserve water” followed by some practical suggestions.

I take heed most of the time. But sometimes I forget. I leave the water on, warming it up while I go fetch something. Or in a wintry city, after I’ve rinsed down, I let the steaming shower relax me for much longer than necessary. Sometimes I tell myself that “the hotel bill has been paid for, anyway.” So I should be able to fill up the bathtub with hot water to the brim as often as I liked, even doze off in it if I wanted to, like some Hollywood royalty, and it’s none of your damn business to tell me otherwise.

Then, as promptly as the evil excuse plants itself in my mind, I self-criticize for acting like a bourgeois, for whom everything could be bought if the price is right. I remind myself that water wasted — whoever pays the cost — is still a precious resource wasted. It’s not just a question of economics. It’s a question of philosophy, public policy, even personal ethics.

“Ah, so, Jun Futzu now believe in Zen of saving water?” asks Kabsat Kandu, in a mock-Oriental tone. Zen. Ethics. Practical hack — call it what you may. In a deep-going sense, it’s a question of utmost social responsibility.


The habit of saving water — as if it was so precious like wine or perfume — had been ingrained in me by thrifty Ilocano parents. This was long before I internalized the activist values of simple living and environmentalism.

But it’s true: thousands of youth-student activists were forced to adjust to all kinds of living conditions when they left their petty-bourgeois homes to work in the underground movement against the US-Marcos dictatorship, living incognito and moving from one town or city to another. Among the many tiny details that we took for granted in our earlier pampered lives, ensuring our daily water needs often loomed as a daunting challenge.

Long before El Niño and climate change became popular TV catchwords for tipid-tubig tips, activists and the poor families that they organized (or with whom they stayed) already practiced many water-saving SOPs. Dozens of funny and morbid anecdotes exist about this, especially from veteran activists with organizing experience in urban poor communities and rural barrios.


We had to ensure that our drinking water was potable, especially in areas where amoebiasis and other debilitating intestinal ailments were endemic. Bottled mineral water was unknown to us or too expensive for daily usage. Five-minute boiling, home-made filtration pots, and collecting clean rainwater in jars were among the simplest solutions.

Full-time organizers in urban poor communities (and even those rural barrios far from rivers, lakes and seashores) had to master the fine art of taking a “cat’s bath” using only a pail of water and tabo. The trick is to maximize the wash towel. Once you master the craft, you could even do it in a secluded nook, if there’s no bathroom in the vicinity.

How about washing dishes, pots and utensils, when there’s no running water and only a pail of water to spare? Any full-time mass organizer will tell you: Easy as pie. Just use separate basins of water for the fine-tuned procedure of scrubbing, soaping, first rinse, and final rinse. It’s a bit tedious but practice makes perfect. The trick also enables you to save the separate batches of greasy or soapy water for various uses, from flushing toilet bowls, to washing your dirty rags, to watering plants. The same holds true for laundry water.

In time, one will also learn to feel and cope with the “hardness” of water from different sources. “Ultra-hard” water from salt-laden wells has a mineral taste, and leaves soap scum and calcified film. “Ultra-soft” rainwater, on the other hand, makes soap harder to rinse off, unless you know about the baking-powder hack (which also functions as deodorant and conditioner—who needs Downey anyway?)


But nifty hacks by individuals and households can only do so much water-saving. Ensuring a steady water supply, like food supply, has always been a matter of community survival and therefore a fundamental public concern.

Where do people get their water? In rural areas, living near springs, creeks, rivers and lakes is an ages-old solution—the most ancient and universal human settlement pattern, in fact. Building dams, digging community wells, and the use of water diviners extended human access to transient and underground water sources.

Village-wide or tribe-wide customary law regulated the use of water so that not one family or clan monopolized it. Various customary modes of communal control and dispute resolution over water remain operative in many rural areas, especially among indigenous peoples.

Even in urban Baguio and adjacent urbanizing towns, there are still certain areas (those not sufficiently served by the local water district) where community-driven or community-owned deep wells and rainwater reservoirs are proving to be viable public utilities.

(One such success story that remains to be written is the Quirino Hill Community Water System, built under the leadership of the late Matthew Guiniden, trade union activist, urban-poor leader, and chairperson of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance in the 1990s.)


Very gradually but eventually, the concept of private property crept up to include water resources. This was sped up by improved technology for reservoirs, deep wells, aqueducts, pumps and pipe systems—especially where private business and landlords were allowed to privatize and monetize them.

Still, the state has been traditionally mandated to invoke its powers over public resources to ensure water access for all. That is why the government set up the NAWASA in the first place (later converted to MWSS) and combined it with local water districts under the LWUA, in addition to NIA.

Alas, the rise to dominance of neoliberal economics has undermined state control and the very notion of water as a public resource and universal right. The narrow market-worshiping and profit-oriented logic of neoliberalism has replaced it with outright privatization schemes for water utilities at first, and when that became discredited, with more onerous schemes hiding behind the PPP banner.

This column space is too short to discuss the water issue as an ongoing public debate. But Chief Seattle’s remark about the price of the sparkle of water remains a question, even for those steeped in Marxist political economy.

How can we set a price on water, based on some universally measurable criteria? When I buy water from a public utility, as an urban consumer, do I pay for it by the liter? Or do I pay it as a fixed charge? If I were a private supplier of water service, how do I compute the cost of water extracted from a deep well that I own? Should I even have the right to privately own the well? Who should benefit from the revenue?

Indeed, how exactly should society organize itself to ensure that water for all is exercised as a universal right, not just on paper but in daily, ground-level reality? How should water-saving become a collective public function and not just a household duty?

These are economic issues that every citizen, every researcher, every policy planner, every grassroots organizer and activist, every public official must address.


“Ah, so, Jun Futzu now economist of water systems? Or you just economist of dish-washing?” remarks Kabsat Kandu, sideswiping my serious mien.

I’m fascinated by the economics of dish-washing, I admit. But it’s more than just economics.

When I had mastered the art, it came to a point where dish-washing became an almost instinctive grace after meals. When I say, “I love washing dishes,” it means an unconditional, non-negotiable love. When friends ask me why I love the chore, I first give them the short version: “It helps me relax and meditate.”

When they are not content with the explanation, I give them the long and more accurate version: When you’ve gotten used to doing daily chores in a place with no running water, where you constantly fetch pailfuls of water from spring to storage drum to sink, then you feel utmost joy in tapwater running through your hands. You begin to relish dish-washing, and finding ways to reuse dishwater, as a welcome post-dinner diversion.

When friends still don’t get it, I shut them up with: “That’s the Zen of dish-washing. You either get it, or you don’t.” End of story. #

Author’s note: This piece was published in the Nordis Weekly issue of April 10, 2016. It is posted here with minor revisions.

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