What to Do When the Water Runs Out
March 1980

“What to Do When the Water Runs Out,” Ensign, Mar. 1980, 56

What to Do When the Water Runs Out

I had never thought much about the miracle of running water in my home until I turned on the faucet on a day of 112° F. heat—and nothing came out. For the next three days I was hardly the example of calm, prepared, Mormon womanhood. For this was a catastrophe—from Saturday noon to Monday night. It caught me completely unprepared and left me dirty, tired, and cross. Since then, however, I have had the same experience many times with far less discomfort.

We live in a charming Brazilian city on an island which, in spite of sixty inches of rainfall per year, has a chronic water problem. In addition, we live in an apartment with structural defects which magnify the city’s frequent shortage into a daily crisis. I have considered myself fortunate if I’ve had two hours of running water per day, and I have gone as long as a week without a drop. So I have learned the blessing of being prepared.

Preparation for me began with realizing what I used water for: drinking; bathing; washing clothes and dishes; cleaning fruits, vegetables and meats; the toilet; pets or houseplants; cooking, especially for dehydrated or dry food (wheat, milk, rice, dehydrated meats and vegetables); and if there is a baby in the house, the diaper pail, bottles, the daily bath, and in the absence of disposable diapers, an almost daily diaper laundry.

Then I analyzed my list. Here’s what I absolutely could not do without water for, for one week: drinking, cooking, personal cleanliness, dishwashing, washing clothes, and cleaning house. Naturally, everyone’s priorities vary. It’s for you to decide between a mopped floor and clean underwear.

Third, how much water will these functions take? Survival bulletins tell us a person needs two quarts for drinking and two quarts for other purposes daily. What they usually don’t say is that two quarts is the bare minimum for survival under difficult circumstances. It does not take into account clothes, dehydrated foods, or toilets!

Deciding Your Water Budget

In my experience, five gallons got two of us comfortably through one day for drinking, food, dishes, and baths. The same five gallons, in an emergency, would get us through two days with considerably less comfort.

A baby complicates the picture. He needs his 1–2 1/2 gallons daily, plus water to wash diapers. I have found that water, soap, and disinfectant in the two-gallon diaper pail will do for a washing, and I can rinse a day’s diapers reasonably well in another five gallons. Therefore, if a baby is part of the household, you will need an additional seven gallons a day for his clothes, or a healthy supply of disposables.

If the shortage lasts more than a few days, you’ll need to wash clothes (possibly by hand) for the rest of the family also. A handwashed load will take about five gallons; you will need to figure how many loads you do a week. My “loads” are what fit in a five-gallon washing sink. You could measure yours by bathtub loads or washing-machine loads—if you can count on electricity—measuring the water capacity of whatever you are washing in, and allowing an equal amount for rinsing.

Thus, my total water budget is about 27 1/2 gallons per person per week (2 1/2 gallons per day, plus two loads of laundry). For a child in diapers, the allowance is sixty-three gallons a week (two gallons a day plus seven gallons for clothes daily). Thus, for our family of three, a week’s budget of water is about 117 gallons. If necessary, this budget can be halved or reduced even further, but with far more anxiety and far less comfort. At the very least, you should have the survival minimum of seven gallons per person per week stored away.

How to Store Water

How does one go about storing water? We all know about the automatic supply in the water heater. Water beds concentrate lots of water in a small area, though the algae-preventant chemicals in most mean the water should not be used for drinking or cooking. New five-gallon gasoline containers are wonderful, though most women will agree that the three-gallon size is much easier to lift and use. However, they may also be chemically unsuitable for cooking or drinking water. Empty plastic (not glass) bleach containers are sturdy and useful, but be sure to remove the bleach label and affix a water label. (Since there is danger in using the contents of mislabeled containers, bottles intended for food use are safer for water storage than empty bleach bottles.) All containers must be sturdy, scrupulously clean, completely closeable, and free from harmful chemicals.

Preserving Water

Just putting tap water into clean containers doesn’t guarantee it will be safe to drink when the need arises. It’s best if you add some purifying agent when you store—unpurified water will grow algae and other undesirables. The easiest place to find water purification products is a place that sells camping supplies, though if you are stumped, a druggist might be able to help. Some leave a taste, and some don’t. Shop around. Household chlorine bleach is easy to use and readily available, though it tastes like a swimming pool. About eight drops per gallon of clear water and sixteen drops per gallon of cloudy water will purify it for drinking (see USDA Home and Garden Bulletin, no. 77). If you’re purifying water that hasn’t come from your storage supply, be sure to mix it well and let it sit half an hour before using it. My personal preference avoids bleach for drinking water. I would rather boil water (three minutes, hard) or use a product that leaves no taste.

If you have instruments or utensils you need to sterilize, one tablespoon of chlorine bleach per gallon should be sufficient. Things to be sterilized should be left completely immersed in this solution for one hour. The solution can be reused for twenty-four hours.

Where to Store

Here in Brazil, nearly every house has a water box high above or behind the house—a variation on the old cistern. They are large, 100- to 1,000-liter (264-gallon) cement boxes with lids. If this type of arrangement is your solution and you plan to build a cistern or water box, get help from a competent engineer. Undue stress on a building, or unsound support under this much weight, can be disastrous.

For those who cannot use this method, a garage or basement, if you have one, is the obvious answer. Otherwise, you have to start looking for under-used space in your home or apartment. Store your cans, bottles, plastic containers, etc., elevated a little off the floor on boards and bricks or any platform that will allow air to circulate. This is especially important if you are limited to inside-the-house space, to protect floors and carpets. It is not a particularly good idea to store water in a high place, since it weighs a lot and you have to lift it going both directions—storing and using. Frozen water will crack containers (leave one-eighth-inch air space for expansion), so try to store your water where it will not freeze.

Organizing Thrifty Water Use

Now, when the worst happens, how do you use your water? First, if you have a reasonable quantity put away, go ahead and use it—but carefully. Never throw even one drop away that you can use for something else. Vegetable-washing water can go to your thirsty plants. Bath water can be shared. All used water goes into the toilet. (Keep disinfectant in the toilet, keep the lid down, and the window open—and keep smiling.) A portable toilet may be your solution to this problem, but they aren’t available in Brazil, and you still will have the problem of disposal.

Washing dishes. For dishwashing you’ll need two dishpans of hot water—one soapy, one clear. If you have to use cold water, fill your sponge with liquid detergent, wash everything, then rinse in one pan of clear water, changing it as needed. Too much detergent in the diet can cause diarrhea, so go easy on the soap and rinse thoroughly. Greasy pans are a real problem, but you can wipe them out with a paper, pour a little boiling water over them to remove the grease, then wash them with cleanser, and rinse. Avoid frying during this period, if possible.

Your cooking will be simpler during a water shortage. One-dish meals soil fewer dishes. I keep a plastic bowl handy for washing fruits, vegetables, and knives in a hurry, then pour the water into gooey pans or messy dishes. Wash all dishes and pans as soon as you use them. Waiting makes the job harder and wastes water.

Drinking water. I would boil or treat all water before drinking it, even if this has already been done to store it. Let it boil hard three minutes, then let it cool (covered). When it is cool, pour it back and forth several times between two containers to improve the taste. (A blender can do this for you—as long as there is electricity.) I filter my water after boiling, and this aereates it too. Either a clean cloth or commercial filters will do. You will need to treat any well or creek water you use unless you are absolutely certain it is pure. Boiling or treating all your water is a small price to pay to avoid dysentery, typhoid, or other water-borne diseases.

Personal cleanliness. It is especially important that people keep clean in this period. A small round plastic dishpan and a handy pitcher of water are very helpful for washing hands and faces. A germicidal soap is good too. Talcum powder is helpful (especially in hot weather), and deodorant is a must for the emergency supply. Keep an aerosol shaving cream for the man in the house. Keep a bucket in the bathroom and kitchen to collect all used water.

Washing clothes. Washing clothes by hand is a special problem. Be sure you have a detergent that works well in cold water. To scrub clothes, a plastic floor brush and a scrub board (or a plain, heavy piece of wood the same size as a scrub board) are very useful. Let the clothes soak in water and detergent for at least one hour. After that, wring them out one by one, giving any that need it an extra scrub with the brush and laundry soap. For more delicate items, simply roll them on the scrub board under your palms.

Remember that it is always easier to add more soap than to rinse out too much. Do not scrimp in rinsing diapers. You’ll all be miserable if the baby is, and tempers tend to be short when the water is. Remember clothesline and clothes pins in your supply too; your dryer may not be functioning. And save the rinse water for the floor, toilet, etc.

The inevitable emergency. When your youngest gets into the ink or the honey, or throws up, or something worse, put several quarts of clean water into a clean bucket. Clean your progeny first—lovingly; he’s discovering the world. Then add disinfectant to the water and attack the floor, walls, and anything else he dirtied. This is usually enough for all but the most appalling messes. Older children can and do cooperate, and making a game out of the situation will make it easier for all. Besides, all the crying and scolding in the world won’t fill your pipes with water.

Keep Smiling

Morale is very important. If you really get discouraged, get out of the house. Help a neighbor. Take the family on an impromptu picnic. Play charades. Sing hymns. Write letters or a funny poem. Do something creative and constructive. Don’t sit and talk hour after hour about the water situation. It’s boring. And do take the opportunity to share with your less-well-prepared neighbors. The sharing will stimulate love and unity—and such funny stories. And while you’re giving them water from your supply, you might be able to help them draw water from the wells of salvation.

Check Tap Water

When the water comes again, be careful. Unless you’re absolutely certain it’s pure, treat it by boiling or adding a purifying agent before using it. If it is a weird color, you might consider filtering it. This removes many undesirable beasties and dirt that could otherwise make you sick.

Water polluted by industrial wastes is probably completely unfit for use in the home. Water contaminated by dirt, flooding, or sewage can be made safe if it is treated properly. We know this because every time it rains, the whole hillside—dirt, garbage, and sewage—washes down into our water supply. I boil it and filter it and to date we’ve had no problem with dysentery or any other water-carried diseases that could not be clearly traced to another source. I also put a purifying agent (either chlorine or alcohol) in dish and bath water. We’ve stayed healthy in these conditions for two years, and while I can’t say I’ve really enjoyed it, it has certainly been a growth experience.

In fact, my self-esteem has soared from being able to cope and I have greater confidence in my resources. One day as I was slapping my clothes clean and singing “Down by the River’s Verdant Side” (Hymns, p. 55), I felt a sudden closeness to my great-great-grandmothers who stood looking back at Nauvoo across the Mississippi River. I have developed a tremendous appreciation for all those generations of stalwart women who had to carry their water from a well or a creek, who pounded their clothes clean on rocks, and who kept their homes shining through it all. They are my heroines.

  • Florence Bringhurst Nielsen, a homemaker, serves as district Relief Society president in the Porto Alegre Brazil Stake.

Photography by Jed A. Clark

Illustrated by Michael O. Rogan