The water of life

Today – 22 March 2016 – is World Water Day.

World Water Day is an international observance and an opportunity to learn more about water related issues, be inspired to tell others and take action to make a difference. World Water Day dates back to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development where an international observance for water was recommended. The United Nations General Assembly responded by designating 22 March 1993 as the first World Water Day. It has been held annually since then. (UN Water)

Here in the UK we’ve seen a lot of water over the winter. According to our rain gauge, we only had a single day without rain in November and December combined. More recently it has been much drier, but the ground is still quite soggy in places. Even so, we have continued with our water-saving activities.


Venus fly trap likes rainwater

From a purely financial perspective, this is sensible: our water is metered and we pay for what we use, so the less water that comes into our house from the mains, then smaller our bill. But this isn’t really our main incentive. There are several reasons we like to collect and use our rainwater, one of which is brand new this year, namely the acquisition of our insectivorous plants. Our little carnivores like their water as unprocessed as possible, and so we collect it in a water butt just outside the limery and use a ceramic jug to transport it direct to them. The Venus fly trap is certainly thriving on this treatment.

But that’s only a tiny reason – the main point is that processing water takes energy. Water does not come direct to you from a reservoir – it passes through a treatment plant before being delivered to your house via the water mains. This is what Welsh Water describe as the stages in treating water:

Screening – this is the first step in the treatment process where mechanical screens
remove some of the larger debris that can be found in rivers and reservoirs ie floating
material such as branches, twigs, leaves etc.

Clarification – a treatment chemical (coagulant) is added to the water which causes
smaller particles that remain from the screening process to cling together. This process is called coagulation. These particles build into larger clumps which then are easier to remove by allowing them to settle and fall to the bottom of the tank leaving cleaner water above.

Filtration – This is, in effect, an attempt to recreate nature’s own purification process.
The water is percolated down through a series of filters made up of a layer of fine sand and supported on layers of coarse sand and gravel. As the water passes through the filters, any remaining material is retained and the clear, filtered water is collected at the bottom. The filters are regularly cleaned and the resulting sludge which has collected is removed for disposal.

pH adjustment – sometimes it may be necessary to add chemicals to adjust the pH of
the water. Chemicals are added to correct the pH value and maintain consistent quality.

Disinfection – finally, the water must be disinfected to kill any remaining bacteria. This is usually done by adding chlorine or sodium hypochlorite and occasionally ozone. (from Water in Wales)

So all these things happen before we even see our water out of the tap*. And every step in the process requires energy and resources.


Collecting rainwater via a diverter on the downpipe

But why put water through all this if we just want to use it to flush the toilet or water our plants? There is simply no need to filter and add chemicals to water for many of the purposes that we put it to. And so, Chez Snail, we flush the toilet with rainwater. We also use rainwater  for tasks such as washing plant pots, sluicing away dirt and cleaning the chicken house. In addition, when the limery was built, most of the concrete was mixed using rainwater.

Just because we live in a place with plenty of water does not mean we should be profligate with it – especially  when it’s been through so much to get to us. So, we shall continue to use raw water as much as possible and minimise our use of tap water… saving money and doing another little thing to help save the planet.


* Just in case you are wondering, Welsh Water does not add fluoride to any of the water that it supplies.

Water, water


Rivers are over-topping their banks

It’s been a bit wet in the UK recently. When we compared our rainfall data for 2014 with that for this year, we saw that we’ve had approximately 50% more in November and more than 60% more in December (and it’s not quite over yet).

We are lucky in that we live on a hill and, although water flows through our garden from the field behind, it doesn’t hang around for long. In addition, our raised beds and raised chicken area act like sponges, and then drain gradually once the rain stops. Others are not so fortunate. Those living in the bottom of valleys are on the receiving end of all the water that has drained off the land further up the catchment. And so in recent days there is news of flooding in such locations.

It seems that we have suffered much more severe floods in recent years than previously and the media is keen to apportion blame… councils allowing developers to build on floodplains for example or upland livestock farming. But it’s a complicated picture and there are lots of reasons behind the current situation. Which means there isn’t a magic bullet – we can’t do one single thing to solve the problem.

Perhaps the first thing to consider is that this is about changing climate. By putting a blanket of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses) around our planet, we are trapping energy in our atmosphere. The result is the increase in storms and severe weather events. You will see many claims in the media that our changing climate is not the result of human activity. These often come from such renowned “experts” as Nigel Lawson, with his degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and James Delingpole, with his degree in English Literature. If you are interested to see the credentials of those in the public eye who are sceptical about climate change, check out the DeSmog disinformation database. In contrast, the people actually undertaking scientific research about climate change overwhelmingly agree that it’s happening and that it’s anthropogenic. Indeed, according to NASA:

Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

So, that’s something to bear in mind.


The local supermarket car park will soon be awash

But, back to the floods themselves… There are several things that we need to do. We need to remember that floodplains serve a particular purpose in a river catchment, and that is not providing flat land for housing! Apart from anything else, floodplains are where rivers should be able to overflow; where the water spreads out, slows down and deposits the soil particles that it’s carrying before it reaches the sea. Floodplains should be the place where we catch the fertility of the land before allowing it to be washed away, and where, as a result, we can farm productively in the drier months. Channelling water so that it moves rapidly through this part of the catchment means that the energy is not dissipated and any nutrients will disappear out to sea.

Further up river catchments we also need to slow down the movement of water. We need to develop a landscape that holds water – upland bogs and grazed diverse grasslands are good for this – and where water is intercepted by trees and shrubs. We don’t need a smooth landscape where water just flows off – we need diverse topography, with pools, banks along contours, a mixture of vegetation types and a well-developed soil. Upland woodlands slow the movement of water, from the moment it falls. Leaves, twigs and branches intercept rain and increase the time it takes for that water to reach the surface. Tree roots make the ground more permeable, and this increases infiltration. Plus, the organic nature of deciduous woodland soils means they act like a sponge and hold large amounts of water.

Anywhere in the catchment, we can make a difference to the water-holding capacity of soil. You are doing this if you add compost to the beds in your garden. In addition, any organic matter incorporated into the soil (whether in a tiny garden or on a large farm) is acting as a sink for carbon and thus reducing net greenhouse gas emissions. These are really good reasons to compost waste and to treat any organic matter as a resource not a problem to be disposed of… not to mention increasing soil fertility and therefore allowing you to grow better crops, which photosynthesise and thus also reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Another benefit, is that increasing the water-holding capacity of soils reduces the impact of droughts – something we have also encountered recently. Adding organic matter, therefore, is a win-win situation.

So, whilst we can’t stop the flooding right now, we can manage our land better to reduce problems in the future. And we can all do this – plant a tree, make compost, build a garden bed, collect rainwater to flush the toilet or water your house plants. Every action helps and together we can make a difference.


Over the banks but not over the bridge



Saving water in the rain

The rain is falling today

The rain is falling today

Here in west Wales, it’s rather wet… in general and today specifically. According to, the average annual rainfall here in Aberaeron is 981 mm, but the picture is variable:

Rainfall in Wales varies widely, with the highest average annual totals being recorded in the central upland spine from Snowdonia to the Brecon Beacons. Snowdonia is the wettest area with average annual totals exceeding 3000 mm, comparable to those in the English Lake District or the western Highlands of Scotland. In contrast, places along the coast and, particularly, close to the border with England, are drier, receiving less than 1000 mm a year. (The Met Office)

This means that in Wales we have plenty water. But even so, us Snails continue to be careful with our consumption: collecting rainwater, reducing the amount of mains water we use and minimising our water use in general. Why? Since we have so much, why not slosh it about as much as we want?

Rain-diverter on a downpipe and a water butt

Rain-diverter on a downpipe and a water butt

The answer is that all resources come at a cost… not just financial, although our water is metered and we do pay for what we use, but there is also a cost in terms of energy and infrastructure. Water that comes from the mains has been treated and processed. So, if we can collect our own water to use in the garden, for example, we are being a little bit more sustainable. Storing water also slows down its progress through the landscape and helps to avoid drains being overwhelmed during storms. Our towns and cities are full of hard, impermeable surfaces to ensure that water does not accumulate, but this means that storm drains can easily be overwhelmed during heavy rainfall events. By collecting rain water in ponds and water butts and using it to water plants or flush the toilet over a number of days, we slow its movement and help reduce possible flooding. Indeed, lots of the rain water that we capture Chez Snail never makes it into the drains as it’s used by our plants.

We also have an additional reason for collecting rain water: the insectivorous plants like it. They don’t like the chemicals added to ‘processed’ water out of the taps and need something a bit more natural. We only water them with rain water and they seem to be thriving:

Cephalotus follicularis Albany carnivorous Pitcher Plant growing well

Cephalotus follicularis Albany carnivorous Pitcher Plant growing well

Fire and brimstone

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, I should tell you that west Wales is, in general, quite a damp place. The average rainfall in our driest month, May, is 55mm and in October, our wettest month, it’s 110mm; throughout the year it rains, on average, about 20 days in every month. Compare that, if you will, to Hertfordshire where my sister lives: May is also their driest month, but they only average 18mm of rain and in December, their wettest month, they only get 36mm, with it raining, on average, about 9 days in every month.

Mosses grow very well in west Wales

Mosses grow very well in west Wales

All this moisture means that many things grow really well here, lower plants in particular: mosses, liverworts and lichens. Plus fungi… which is great when you want to go out and pick field mushrooms, but less good in the greenhouse. You see, fungi cause all sorts of problems: our tomatoes and pepper plants in the greenhouse always, for example, get Botrytis (grey mould) later in the summer. Since there are no fungicides registered for use in the UK that will treat Botrytis (and anyway I wouldn’t like to use them if they were), the only answer is to try to keep humidity down in the greenhouse and to deal with the spores before any plants go in.

So, every year at the start of the growing season I fumigate my greenhouse. Or at least I attempt to fumigate my greenhouse. And every year I do battle with a sulphur candle.

If you have never encountered a sulphur candle, let me explain: it’s a tin of sulphur granules with a paper wick. You take the lid off, light the wick, close the greenhouse door on your way out and leave for 12 hours. During that time the sulphur burns, producing lots of smoke which penetrates all the nooks and crannies in your greenhouse, ridding it of all sorts of pests. The result: a nice pest and spore-free greenhouse that will be safe to put your precious seedlings in. It’s just about the only ‘chemical’ I use in the garden, but my goodness is it a bother.

You see, whoever designed sulphur candles has clearly never tried to light one. I have never got one to burn successfully on my first attempt. Because the operation is smelly, I usually do it overnight so as not to upset our neighbours. So, at 9pm on Saturday I was outside with the sulphur candle and a lighter. I carefully followed the instructions, pulling the wick up 10mm out of the sulphur granules, lighting it and then beating a hasty retreat (you really don’t want a lungful of sulphur fumes).

Twenty minutes later I went back to check. It had gone out. So, I pulled some more wick up and relit it.

Twenty minutes later I went back to check. It had gone out. There was not enough wick left to relight. So, I soaked some kitchen paper in some old cooking oil, pushed this into the tin and tried again.

Twenty minutes later I went back to check. It had gone out. I repeated the process with a small piece of candle inserted too.

Twenty minutes later I went back to check. It had gone out… and the wax had solidified on the surface. I got an old metal baking tin, put oil soaked paper on the bottom, broke the sulphur up again, sprinkled it over the paper, added a candle end and relit it. Then I went to bed.

In the morning I went back to check. The paper was singed round the edges, the candle had melted and formed a clump and most of the sulphur remained as it was. So, I sprinkled the whole thing with lighter fluid, lit it and left it to get on.

An hour later I went back to check. It looked exactly the same as last time. So, I build a fire: paper, paper sticks, small sticks, larger sticks, some of the sulphur sprinkled over plus a dash of lighter fluid for good measure. I lit it and came in for coffee.

An hour later I looked out and the greenhouse was finally full of sulphur smoke.

In the evening I ventured in… most of the sulphur had burnt, so I considered the greenhouse fumigated and left the window  open for it to ventilate before those seedlings go in.

And the moral of this story? Someone needs to invent a better sulphur candle before next year… please!

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