Next to air, water is the most important aspect for human survival. So, what happens if your water supply is compromised following a disaster? What do you do when you open your faucet, and nothing comes out? At some point you must realize that access to clean water may not be an option. If the spigot fails to provide water, hopefully you have some kind of water storage plan and you understand how to effectively manage your water reserves.
Reasons for Water Supply Interruptions
Disaster/short-term water supply interruptions can result from a number of reasons, such as a broken water main, extended power outages, a contaminated water supply, and many other natural and man-made causes.
Following a disaster:
- Public utilities may not be operational, causing a decrease in water supply and/or a contaminated water supply
- Flooding may contaminate your local water supply
- A chemical company may accidentally discharge hazardous chemicals into your water supply (Elk River, WV 2014)
- If there is a power outage, having well water doesn’t guarantee you will have access to clean water either; no power no water.
Long-term water supply issues usually develop over a longer period of time, and can be caused by extended droughts, underground aquifers drying up, and severe natural and man-made causes. For this example, let’s look how a drought may affect you.
- Droughts = decreased easily recovered water supplies
- During droughts, local governments and water authorities eventually institute water restrictions.
- If the drought continues, these restrictions only get worse.
- In July 2014, the state of California instituted state wide water restrictions which limited how citizens use water, and a $500 fine for each water violation.
- Local water authorities also issued their own fines for violations.
- While these fines may seem excessive, it underlines the importance of water security, such that the state and local governments are worried that they may run out of water before their reservoirs are filled.
- In contrast, if consumers only used the local water supply for the primary intended purpose, human water consumption and personal hygiene, there probably wouldn’t be any restrictions during droughts.
How Much Water Do You Currently Use?
As you can see, our water supply system is somewhat fragile. Therefore, the safest ways to ensure that you have access to clean water is to have a water storage plan. Before we get into identifying how much water you should have on hand, let’s look at how much water we currently consume in our daily lives.
Since the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends having a three day water supply, we will use that as a base for all of our calculations. The average American family of four uses nearly 400 gallons a day, or an average of 1200 gallons over a three day period. Your family may use more or less, depending on the sex, age range, and living habits. To determine your exact usage, simply look at your water bill. If you are on well water or do not know how much water you consume, you can use the Home Water Works Calculator.
In fairness, there is a difference between normal use and emergency water use. During an emergency situation, naturally your water habits will change. So now, let’s look at what the government says we should have for an emergency reserve. FEMA recommends a minimum of one gallon of water per person per day for drinking and sanitation purposes, and storing enough for a three day period. This means a family of four should store 12 gallons of water (4 people x 1 gallon x 3 days = 12 gallons).
To put this in perspective, 12 gallons of water is only 1% of what the average family of four would normally consume in a three day period (1200 gallons). Therefore, your family will have to do without 99% of the water that you normally use. This is challenging since water is used for many tasks and the importance of these tasks increase during an emergency/survival situation. If you store the FEMA minimum, you will not be able to take a shower, flush your toilets, or conduct proper personal hygiene. Doing without these modern day rituals may be fine during a three day hardship, but what happens if the recovery period extends past three days?
How Much Water Do You Need?
Building your water reserve can be as simple as having a few cases of bottled water, to storing thousands of gallons of water in a cistern or pond. Ideally, you should have as much water as you can stockpile; which is challenging if you live in an apartment building or unable to collect rainwater.
At the base minimum, we recommend three gallons of water per person per day, for a minimum of three days for a short term emergency (4 people x 3 gallons x 3 days = 36 gallons). These 36 gallons will provide ample water for hydration, cooking, and light personal hygiene. However, this does not include flushing toilets, washing dishes, or taking a shower. So, now let’s look at this from a practical perspective.
Now that we have some additional numbers, let’s add a few more variables. Looking at the numbers above, we can see that toilet flushes and showers account for the majority of emergency water usage.
The toilet reservoir can be filled with water after each flush, so that it is ready the next time you need to flush. By following these steps you can significantly reduce, or eliminate, the amount of water needed for flushing toilets.
- Newer toilets use significantly less water. So upgrade your toilets to conserve water.
- Use the bathroom buddy system. Let your children go to the bathroom first, then follow them before the toilet is flushed. Yes, do not flush between uses, rather only after the cycle is complete.
- Do not flush after urinating; only flush after a bowel movement. If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.
- Men, find a nice shaded area behind your home to go number one.
- Use a camping/RV portable toilet
- Skip the toilet all together, and use a bucket. Get a five gallon bucket, a trash bag, some wood shavings or shredded paper, and do your business in the bucket. Line the bucket with the trash bag. After completed, cover with wood shaving and/or shredded paper. The shaving/paper will reduce the smelliness, and will also limit the amount of flies.
- Construct a temporary outhouse.
You can use a solar shower, a hot water on demand shower, or an elevated 5 gallon bucket with a hose to take a shower. You can also heat up water, and pour it into a bathtub, like they do in Western movies. To save water:
- Take short showers using the military method. First, rinse your body using only enough water to get wet, and then turn off the water. Next, wash your body with soap, and then rinse with water. Last, get out of the shower.
- The second military personal hygiene method involves skipping showers. Sure, things will stink, but you will also save a good amount of water. Instead, use baby wipes and a small amount of water to take bird baths; just like bathing a newborn.
- Women, do not wash your hair.
So how much water do you really need? It all depends on how much room you have and your budget for building a water storage system. While we recommend a baseline of 36 gallons of water for a family of four, ideally you should have at least 200 gallons of water to retain a minor level of normalcy for a three day emergency reserve.
Water Storage Options
One of the easiest ways to store water is to use your bathtub. The average U.S. bathtub holds between 30-60 gallons of water; more if you have a large tub (100+ gallons). Some may be disgusted by the thought of using bath water for drinking and food preparation. Therefore, instead of pouring the water directly into the tub, you can fill a tub-sized water bladder. These types of bladders fit inside of your tub, and use the rigid structure of your tub for support. Additionally, most come with a pump and can store water up to four weeks.
If you only have one bathtub, then you will not be able to use it for bathing. However, during an emergency situation, it is more important to have access to clean water for drinking and cooking. Of course, using your tub as an emergency water storage method requires that you know when the emergency is going to occur, and that you fill up your bathtub before the power goes out or the water pressure drops. If you are expecting a power outage or flooding, fill up your tub before the storm hits. If you are caught off guard and your power goes out, you still may be able to fill the bladder due to the pressure in the water line; so do it quickly.
Another option is purchasing bottled water. If you have ever been to a store before a storm, milk, bread, and bottled water are the first to be sold out. Bottled water is very expensive, $1 per gallon if purchasing the gallon-sized jugs, and $2-$3 per gallon if purchasing smaller bottles. Instead of purchasing pre-bottled water, bottle your own.
When selecting your bottles, it is recommended to use two liter plastic soft drink bottles. Milk jugs and fruit juice bottles are not recommended since the previous contents cannot be adequately removed or cleaned.
Bulk Water Storage
Installing a cistern or rain water collection system is a great idea, if it is still legal in your area. Rain water can be used for drinking and hygiene purposes, as long as it is filtered and/or treated prior to consumption. If you are just washing your clothes, flushing a toilet, or watering plants, filtration and treatment is not usually needed.
Food grade barrels and IBC Totes can be used to store water. Just ensure the barrel/tote was previously used to store food related liquids. These barrels can be purchased new, but this method usually brings a high price tag. Alternatively, look on craigslist for local distributors when purchasing used barrels/totes. A food grade barrel typically stores 50-55 gallons of water, while an IBC tote stores between 250-300 gallons. For the gallon to price comparison, it is usually cheaper to purchase IBC totes.
Making Water Safe to Use
Once you have your water storage figured out, the next step will be to ensure it is safe for consumption. If you purchased bottled water or filled a bath-tub bladder prior to a disaster, the water is safe to use. However, if you collect rainwater or find it from alternate sources, more than likely your water will need to be treated. This can be accomplished several different ways. So instead of talking about those now, we recommend reading our Water Filtration and Purification Guide.
We cannot stress enough how vulnerable our public water supply system really is. Any minor hiccup can cause our utilities to go offline, and being off grid or on well water is only beneficial if you have a means to power your pump if the power goes out. Just like any survival category, redundancies also need to be in place. If you can only store a small amount of water, we recommend having 36 gallons for basic drinking, cooking, and hygiene purpose. But, when it comes to water, the more the better. So, put some serious thought into your water storage plan and start building your reserves. If you have already started, increase your capacity. You do not want to have to rely on anyone, especially local and federal governments, if your water supply is interrupted.