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Water - An Emergency Preparedness Essential

Posted by Sarah Stogryn on

This weekend the main waterline into town broke. A state of emergency was declared, the fire department set up port-a-potties and water distribution at the Community Centre, and there was overall a lot of worry about how to cope with the sudden and unexpected water crisis. I already have a post on Emergency Preparedness Basics which you can read here, but today I'd like to talk specifically about how to function when water is scarce.

Store 2L of bottled/drinking water per family member per day for 3 days. A family of 4 would need to have 24L of water stored - that's two 24packs of 500mL bottled water.

1 large bucket of water (blue camping jugs are a good choice) for flushing & hand washing per day for 3 days. If you have a larger than average family consider 2 or more buckets per day. 

    The water you use for flushing does NOT need to be drinking water quality. If it's raining, set buckets        outside underneath an eavestrough for example to collect water. If the water is running but a boil water     advisory is in effect the water can still be used for flushing. 

    Speaking of toilets.... place ALL used toilet paper, feminine hygiene products etc into a covered trash can or bucket that has been double lined with a plastic bag. Do NOT waste precious water flushing these things. And that old adage of "if it's yellow let it mellow if it's brown flush it down"... that applies here too. If water is very scarce you can consider making a DIY composting toilet using wood shavings or sawdust, a bucket, and an optional toilet seat. Information on how to do that is found here.

    For handwashing, as long as the water is clear (ie not obviously contaminated with dirt) you can                 *generally* use it to wash your hands or sponge bathe with assuming you are careful not to accidentally      ingest the water and are not previously immune or digestive compromised. Your mucous membranes will absorb water you sit in, but with a sponge bath the water contact is much shorter. You can also use regular chlorine bleach to treat the water for hand & body washing as per the recommendations found here.  
    Most of us use FAR more water than is necessary to achieve clean hands when we can effectively wash our hands with a very small amount of water: 1/4 cup for kids, 1/3 cup for small adult hands, 1/2 cup for average adult hands, 3/4 cup for large adult hands. I suggest using an actual measuring cup to ensure you don't waste.
        Pour a teaspoon or two of clean water into one cupped hand and use that to wet your hands all over. Scrub well with soap. Pour 1-2 tablespoons of water into your cupped palm and rinse both hands with it. Pour remaining water in a slow trickle over both hands to remove remaining soap and dirt. 
If clean water is very limited you can use hand sanitizer instead for a short while but it's no substitute for soap and water. If your hands are very dirty, use whatever quality water is available to wash with so that actual dirt is removed then follow up with hand sanitizer or a second wash with clean water as per the above instructions.
    For body cleansing, you can consider a sponge bath with no more than 1L of water, baby wipes, OR you can also use what is known as the oil cleansing method. To oil cleanse, massage a small amount of good quality oil like coconut, olive, grapeseed, sunflower or apricot into your armpits (for example) then wipe off the excess with a clean soft dry cloth.  Done. Oil cleansing is a great option when you only need to freshen up the stinkiest parts ;)
    For a sponge bath, wipe your DRY skin vigorously with  a clean dry cloth first to remove dead skin cells. Have a wet soapy cloth to wipe your body with and a second wet only cloth to rinse the soap off with. Do one area of the body at a time so the soap doesn't dry on you before you rinse it and move from the cleanest to the dirtiest areas of your body. 
    If your hair is starting to feel greasy, sprinkle on some cornstarch at the roots, then brush it all out. The cornstarch will absorb excess oil. 

Switching gears away from hygiene to food:

Keep paper plates/bowls for eating from. Paper can be composted or burned at a later time. Cutlery doesn't require a lot of water to wash and each family member can be assigned one cup for water which they re-use. Just put a small amount of drinking water and soap into a mid size bowl and wash your cutlery in that. No need to run the dishwasher or fill the sink.

Keep 3 days of shelf-stable food that requires either no water or minimal water to prepare.  Boiling a whole pot of water to cook your macaroni is not as water-efficient of a choice as opening a can of soup, peanut butter on whole grain crackers with a side of fruit cups, or tortilla chips & salsa with a can of beans stirred in. Dry cereal and boxed milk is a better choice than dry cereal and powdered milk that needs water to reconstitute it. Oatmeal, rice, couscous, and quinoa all require water, BUT you are consuming all the water so none goes to waste and that makes them good choices too. Please see here to learn more about creating a 3 day emergency preparedness meal plan. Ideally the foods in your 3 day meal plan don't require heating/cooking either as that can be very difficult in the case of a power outage. Try not to overdo the salt and sugar either as both increase the amount of water your body needs. If you do choose to use water for something like cooking pasta, don't throw it down the drain when you're done, but use it instead to bucket flush your toilet. Don't let a drop get wasted if there is another way it can be used!


Don't ration your drinking water as even a very mild case of dehydration can have a profound impact on physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Don't scrimp on hygiene. The last thing you want is to contract an illness that leads to vomiting, diarrhea, etc when water is scarce.

Rotate your food and water supplies every 6 months at the time change when you also check your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Anything that will expire within the next 6 months should be replaced and can either be used yourself or donated to the local food bank.

Breathe deep & stay calm.   90% of survival rests in your ability to keep your mental s**t together even when the s**t hits the fan.  It doesn’t matter how much stuff you have gathered or how many books you have read, if you can’t focus in when it counts.  One breath at a time you can get through.


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