If you live in a desert or semi-desert region, you’ve probably looked into some of the methods for gardening with less water.  If you live in a city, nearly everything comes from afar, and too few of us have considered how to provide for our own food, water, medicine etc.   When you learn how to provide some of your needs, wherever you’re living, you build strength into your family and community.

Look at a map of North America and you’ll see that there are many areas where the average rainfall is low – mostly the western and southern states, as well as many other parts of the world.  Erratic weather seems to be the rule, and learning how to survive in an area with limited water is a good long-term skill to develop.

So how do you continue to grow and produce food as the ground and heavens seem ever drier?


Water is the key to life. According to health authorities, only 20% of the world’s population has access to potable tap water.

And consider:  Of the 333 million cubic miles of water estimated to be on the planet, 97% of that is in the oceans. Two percent is locked in ice. About 0.01% of the water is in lakes and rivers, and the remaining water is more than a mile underground, beyond the reach of conventional well drilling.

One of the biggest uses of water is agriculture, and fortunately, most farmers rely on rain water for about 85% of their water needs. The rest is supplied by wells, dams, aqueducts, etc.

And yes, rain is important, but consider that at any given moment, the amount of rain falling on the earth amounts to about 0.001% of the world’s water.

If you’re fortunate to live in an area where water is sufficient or abundant, it would still behoove you to learn some methods for doing more with less.  Why?  Periods of drought are not rare upon the earth, and long periods of severe drought have affected vast swaths of land throughout recorded history. Those who learned to adjust and live with the change, survived. Those who did not, or could not, moved on or died out.

So how do you get more use out of limited water? There are only a few ways to do this: 

1) Use your water more than once, and 

2) collect rain.


When water is limited, you must find ways to do more with less.  Here are some examples.  When you wash your dishes, simply carry the dishpan outside and water plants with it.  This is so simple to do, and it requires no special tools or retrofits.  Just carry the water outside and pour it where needed.  Did you know that the navel orange grew from a seedling grown in Riverside by a woman who watered it every day with her dishwater?

In nearly every place I have lived in the past 40 years, I found ways to disconnect the bathtub drain and the kitchen drain and the drain from the washing machine, and I directed that water out into the yard.  The yards had gentle slopes and so the water eventually irrigated a large area, and there were never problems. 

Yes, Building and Safety (B&S) has a lot to say about this, because they don’t want people to be letting water sit and raise mosquitoes.  If you plan to do this, you should talk to plumbers and talk to B&S to see what they suggest these days.  Though grey water recycling can be as simple as I’ve described here, B&S knows that a lot of people are not as diligent as I am with these systems, and so they want you to build a system that eliminates all possibility of problems.

On large properties, you can direct a hose from the drain of a washing machine and move the hose around to irrigate various trees or garden areas. Obviously, once you start to do this, you will also need to choose detergents that are not harmful to the soil.

Don’t underestimate the amount of water that can be re-used from the average household.  Even with a low-flow toilet (or a composting toilet), there is a lot of water used to wash clothes, take showers and baths, and in the kitchen.  An average household in the U.S. uses about 80 gallons daily, give or take some gallons.  That’s a lot!

If you have a slightly larger area than a suburban lot, you should consider the possibility of terracing your yard so that rainwater does not immediately wash away, and so that there is the possibility of rainwater settling in basins, called “swales” in today’s jargon.

Some of the ancient natives of the Southwest, and of South America, made dams and canals to bring water great distances to their desert homes.  We still do this today.  Los Angeles County is a classic example of a desert empire that would not exist were it not for the great cement aqueduct that brings water from the north hundreds of miles to the Los Angeles basin.  Water is also diverted from the Colorado River to feed the growing demand for water in the Los Angeles basin.

[more on this topic in coming weeks]

Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Guide to Wild Foods,” and other books. He also leads field trips. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.Schoolof Self-Reliance.com.