When I was young we used to hightail it outside, clanging pots in hand, at the first whisper of a spring or summer storm. It was our firm belief that shampooing with rainwater imbued our hair with magic. Girlhood diversions aside, the truth is that harvesting rainwater may be more important than we realize.
According to the UN, 20 percent of the world’s population in 30 countries faces water shortages. This number is expected to rise dramatically by 2025. Although water is something that many of us take for granted, 1.2 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water. And consider this: While the average American individual uses between 100 and 176 gallons each day, the average African family uses only 5 gallons. (Just one flush of a toilet in the West uses more water than most Africans have to perform an entire day’s washing, cleaning, cooking and drinking.)
Fresh water from underground aquifers is finite—there is only so much of it, and because of pollution and the rate at which it is being extracted—well, the word “crisis” comes to mind. However, rainwater is considered a renewable natural resource. And while domestic potable water collection requires effort, energy, and chemicals for purification and transport, rainwater conserves natural resources, is free of chemicals, and is delivered without challenging the environment.
The easiest way to collect rainwater is with rain barrels, and harvested rainwater is great for your lawn, garden and houseplants. Especially in the summer months, many of us have intense heat accentuated with brief yet heavy summer storms—with a dry ground much of that water simply runs off.
By setting a rain barrel beneath your downspout you’ll have a free supply of water for your landscaping. Wooden barrels provide rustic charm, but plastic ones are more widely available. You can buy ready-made rain barrels (check with your water company or municipality, first, as many provide them free of charge or at a reduced price). Alternatively, there are many websites that provide instructions on how to build your own. You may not be ready to make the commitment to a more permanent system, but you can always start out by placing plain buckets underneath your downspouts just to get your feet wet.
Use a lid to minimize evaporation and to keep out debris and mosquitoes. A hose fitting will give you easy access to the collected water, and a diverter lets you switch back to the downspout, or another barrel, should the rain barrel get full. Don’t expect to be able to use a hose directly from your rain barrel; gravity probably won’t give enough pressure to get water through it. Instead, use the hose fitting to conveniently fill a watering can or slow delivery containers.
If you have a garden or tool shed, heck, even a playhouse, why not attach a gutter and barrel there as well? If you have a collecting (or “catchment”) area of 1,000 square feet and an average annual rainfall of 20 inches, you have the potential to collect 24,000 gallons of water annually—the equivalent to the water 13 African families use in a year.