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Living on Five Gallons of Water a Day: Take the Challenge!

By Dr. Tessie San Martin
Tessie San Martin took the #5GallonDay Challenge.

I am competitive by nature.  So when my colleagues at Plan International USA asked me to take the #5GallonDay Challenge – live for a 24 hour period on five gallons of water a day or less -- I enthusiastically accepted - “bring it on.”

 But behind the fun of being challenged, there are some sobering facts. The challenge is set to coincide with World Water Day (March 22 this year), which is meant to promote awareness about the challenges surrounding, and promote actions that bring, universal access to safe water for all.  In the U.S., stories about water scarcity or water safety are headline-worthy; think of southern California and the dire safe water access conditions in Flint, Michigan.  But in too many countries lack of access to safe (or even any) water is just the way life works.  Finding water and bringing it home is a major and time-consuming task for the poor.  In fact, finding water and bringing it home are key factors keeping many girls around the world from going to or staying in school ( for example, here and here).  For those girls and their families, living on five gallons a day is not a game.

Let me expand on this last point and put five gallons a day in perspective for us here in the U.S.  Estimates vary, but the average individual in the U.S. uses about 80-100 gallons of water per day for personal use (e.g. to wash yourself, your clothes, your dishes). The largest use of household water is flushing the toilet. Showers use up a lot of water also, though much less than baths; handwashing and even brushing your teeth can use a lot of gallons, depending on your faucet and your habits (do you keep the water running while you brush or lather?). Running your basic kitchen and bathroom faucet for just a minute takes about one gallon. Flushing the toilet uses 1.6 gallons – assuming you are using a newer “low-flow” toilet (older toilets use up to 4 gallons).   

Taking all of these parameters into account, I set out to understand how much water I consume during an average day.  There is a handy online tool to help you do just that - a water footprint calculator. Using the tool to catalogue my habits around water use I find out that I am basically a water hog.  Not good. I need to adapt. I use the tool again, this time assuming a more mindful approach to the most basic activities: that I will turn off the faucet - instead of letting the water run – every time I brush my teeth or lather while washing my hands.  The grand total with my new hyper-awareness about water use? 42 gallons. Yikes, not enough!  More thinking is required….

I don’t panic.  I just need to refine my strategy – and I need more help. I go back to research mode.  Surely I am not the first person to do this.  Indeed, it turns out that there are many amusing videos and articles on this topic, like this one – a how-to guide by a British journalist  (in the Independent). 

Armed with a great deal of practical and sometimes very funny advice, I set out to meet Plan’s challenge on March 4.  As it turns out, I am on an overseas trip for Plan.  I have a very early morning flight back to the U.S., so I skip washing my hair this morning – saving quite a bit of water, and why not?  I am just sitting on a plane all day. I keep my shower to just two minutes (I have the timer on my phone) at low flow.  I dry brush my teeth throughout the day and use a travel-size hand sanitizer instead of washing my hands. Total water consumed for those personal uses?  I calculate about two  gallons.

In terms of actual water consumption, I have one cup of coffee ( that’s tough for me!), and keep my total water/soda/coffee ingestion to a moderate half gallon. 

And then here is a bit of luck on my end.  Since I am spending the bulk of today on airplanes this takes care of the flushing toilet issue.  Airplane toilets are very frugal (using about half a gallon per flush).  Throughout the various flights, toilet use consumes another 1.5 gallons.

By the time I get home from my trip it is almost “midnight” (actually it is 6pm in the afternoon at home, but it is midnight in the country where I started the challenge).  SUCCESS!!! I made it through the day with no more than five gallons of water. At exactly 6:01pm I took a shower and washed my hair.  I felt revived after 14 hours on the road.

So, what did I prove?  Not much.  Indeed, with a bit of luck and discipline I met the challenge.  But let’s get real. Under normal circumstances (e.g., had I not been on airplanes all day), I would never have made it. The reality is that I cannot live on five gallons a day.  And neither can most of us.  So why would we tolerate a world where millions have no choice but to live like that?

So…go ahead.  Get your water footprint calculator, develop your strategy, and see if you can also manage to live on five gallons of water a day.  And afterwards ask yourself what you can do to make sure that no family or child ever has to do so. 

Plan International USA’s Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) programming is based on the principle that all girls, boys, women, and men should have access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities year round. To support World Water Day and give to our water fund, click here.

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