Heading down the drain with the ‘4 Minute Shower’

Every now and again what sounds like a really good idea turns out to be less beneficial than what was hoped for. There’s lots of talk right now about technology solutions and ways in which societies can change the way they use water – there’s conferences and ‘talkfests’ a plenty featuring many of the industry players and lots of smart cookies. When it comes to good intentions that miss the mark, Strategic Futurist Marcus Barber wonders whether or not the Victorian Government’s ‘4 Minute Shower’ idea is a current example?

For those of you that have read my paper ‘A Drop in the Ocean’ you’ll know that I am greatly interested in the issue of fresh water, water management and the way societies around the world approach how they handle the water they have available to them.  If you haven’t read the piece and are interested, here’s the link.


In that paper I proposed a few key ideas, two of which were the ‘Global’ – an international currency unit equivalent to one litre of fresh water; and the ‘Global Currency map’ which showed how some societies are better off with regard to water access and use and what we could learn from the way in which we introduce new ideas to help save the planet from a disaster based on a lack of fresh water.


So you’d probably think that I’d be a fan of the Victorian Government’s ‘4 Minute Shower’ initiative.  And up to a point I am.  I’m a fan of any initiative that reduces the amount of water we use and how we use it – but there is something about the ‘4 Minute Shower’ idea that has me greatly concerned –I sense that it is a well intentioned but misplaced notion for water use.


In considering the ‘4 Minute Shower’ idea I am taking a counter-instinctive approach to it.  Negotiators know that counter instinctive behaviour can be very useful at changing the direction of a negotiating process that seems to be headed to a foregone conclusion.  They also know that it can be difficult to do, especially when habits of ingrained behaviours are in play.


In taking a counter instinctive approach I’m going to break down the intention behind the four minute shower idea and see if looking at it from a different perspective provides an improved level of understanding about what the problem is and whether the idea will actually solve the challenge.


Right now it appears that the Victorian Government is concerned that we are running out of water; that we need to reduce our usage of the water; that steps need to be as simple as can be possible and ideally that the concept can appeal to as many people as possible.  That all sounds like a good thing doesn’t it?  And the key concept that the Victorian Government have embraced is the ‘4 minute shower’.  This idea, on the surface, looks like a no-brainer – easy enough for everyone to do, reduces the amount of water being consumed, can be done by just about anyone.


So what’s the issue?  In counter instinctive terms I’m suggesting that the ‘4 Minute Shower’ idea is entrenching the notion that it is okay to waste water.  Just so long as you do it in smaller amounts.


The trouble with having a shower is that every litre you use – whether you have a long shower or a short one, whether you use a water gobbling shower head or one of the (ought to be compulsory) best bar none ‘diamond’ heads like we use, goes down the drain as waste water.  EVERY single litre.  And you only use that litre of water ONCE per event – it skims past your body and disappears, despite the vast majority of it being arguably drinkable by standards experienced in many parts of the world (and even parts of Australia)


For me the ‘4 Minute Shower’ idea misses the mark – it is a permission slip for people to keep wasting water (just like carbon credits are permission slips for people to keep polluting the planet).  Taking a counter instinctive approach, I suggest that what we need to encourage is for people to INCREASE water usage and to use anything other than showers!


Yes you read that right and to support my counter-instinctive position I am going to use a real life example – my own.


I live in an inner suburban house with a large backyard.  Our family consists of two kids, the good lady wife and myself.  We have a free range rabbit, a couple of chickens, three goldfish in the water feature and a reasonable sized vegie patch.  In the backyard we have an orange tree, large cherry tree, an apple tree, some delightful lemon centred melaleuca (Gum Trees) over 80 feet tall and a backyard big enough to have a hit of cricket, or for the kids to ride their bikes around, or to have a bounce on the trampoline.  We have a small 4wd and a small two door car in the drive.  There’s a grape vine out the front that produces wonderful eating grapes as well as keeping the front ‘lawn’ area shaded during summer.  We live in an suburban enclave that has the highest level of water usage per capita in Victoria.  Or perhaps we’ve dropped back to number two recently – either way people in our suburb are ‘up there’ with regard their level of water use.  We should be using a truckload of water everyday.


Yet according to the comparative graph provided to us by South East Water, usually our four person large garden home uses less water that the average one person home with just a medium sized garden!


And here’s how we did it – we stopped the kids having a shower and made them take a bath instead.


In fact our kids would have about one shower to every ten baths.  I hate baths and I either have the tap running at the veritable trickle, or I shower outside in the garden using the garden hose (though less frequently in winter).  And let me tell you that when you are outside using a cold garden hose during winter – you learn to shower pretty efficiently and quickly!


We also have three smaller water tanks capturing rainfall with a total capacity of about 2500 litres.  We’ve had them installed for about seven years, way before any idea of ‘water tank rebates’ were in play and in all that time we have NEVER experienced a time when all three tanks were empty at the same time.  In fact we’ve only had two occasions when two tanks were empty because I’d let one of them run dry watering the orange tree and forgot to turn the tap off!


By the way the water tank rebate is also a flawed idea because it allows people to compare the cost of the water tank to the value of the rebate (which doesn’t even pay for the cost of plumbing) and many choose not to install one.  The Victorian Government should instead make it compulsory for EVERY household undergoing a renovation of any description to install a minimum of 5000 litre capacity.  At the same time we should introduce a ‘moratorium’ similar to the one being used for the switching off of the analogue TV signal, and give households in Victoria three years to install a tank or face a levy.


Now back to this counter instinctive water saving approach.  The ‘4 minute Shower’ though well intentioned, does nothing more than to slow down the rate at which water is wasted.  It also ensures that people lower their water usage at a time when we should encourage them to increase it.  And that is why the bath works so well – EVERY SINGLE drop that is used in the bath by my kids is reused and bucketed onto some part of our garden.  We have doubled the usage of water – first as a bath, second as a watering element for our garden.  We have kept alive some lovely shade trees and native shrubs; we have increased the production from our fruit trees and vegetable patch; we keep the vine well watered during summer so that the table grapes are plump and juicy.


The same goes for the showers I have in the backyard – every single drop lands on some needed part of the garden.  We still let our lawn brown in summer but still manage to keep it alive so that the backyard does not turn into a dust bowl.  Simply put, by looking at how we use the water we are using we decided to increase usage but lower consumption.  It is important to understand that usage and consumption are not the same things.  Next step will be hooking one of the tanks up to one of the toilets (another water saving activity with more to tell on another occasion)


By comparison the 4 Minute Shower suggests that so long as you let it go down the drain in shorter bursts, all will be okay.  It isn’t going to be okay – Victoria and most of Australia are facing a social disaster at a level not on most people’s radar!


So I wonder whether or not Victoria is headed down the drain with the 4 Minute Shower?

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