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Michael Kouraba headshot

This is Water: Lessons From My '4 Liters Challenge'


On an average day, I waste a shameful amount of water.  So do you.  We all do, and we do it while hundreds of millions of people in other parts of the world live in “water poverty,” consuming less water in an entire day than most of us use flushing the toilet a few times.

I learned all of this when I decided to take DIGDEEP’s4 Liters Challenge” -- a pledge to use a total of only 4 liters of water for one entire day.  The challenge was not pleasant.  Far worse than the experience was coming to terms with just how much water we waste.


Does the 4 Liters Challenge sound hard?  I actually wasn’t sure until I put it in context.  First, most of us use nearly 4 liters of water -- in other words, all of the water allotted in the challenge -- every time we wash our hands or face.  Most Americans use more than 400 liters of water (!) every single day, or 100 times what the challenge requires.  A single toilet flush uses about 6 liters of water, and a mere three flushes amounts to more water than most other people in the world use all day to clean, cook, drink and bathe.  The average dishwasher uses 23 liters of water, and running the water while you brush your teeth could waste 9 liters. The all important shower?  Newer shower models use about 9.5 liters of water every minute, so a quick, five-minute shower uses about 47.5 liters of water and a 10-minute shower -- a little longer than the average -- uses (wastes?) almost 100 liters.


The United Nations has explicitly recognized a human right to water and sanitation; yet, more than 800 million people worldwide live in “water poverty,” meaning they lack access to a sufficient quantity of water, or water of an adequate quality, to meet their basic needs.  To put this in perspective, the World Health Organization suggests that a “sufficient” quantity of water is somewhere between 50 and 100 liters per person per day.

Juxtaposed against the amount of water our day-to-day activities consume, the statistics regarding water scarcity are startling.  Almost 1 in 7 people lack a safe source of clean water.  At any moment, half of all hospital beds in the world are full of people sick from dirty water, and 3.4 million people die each year from a water-related disease.  The average distance that women in Africa and Asia have to walk to collect water is 6 kilometers (about 3.7 miles); for the roughly 885 million people in the world who live more than 1 kilometer from a water source, water use is often less than 5 liters a day of unsafe water.  The basic water requirement for a lactating woman engaged in moderate physical activity is 7.5 liters a day.  Together, unclean water and poor sanitation are the world's second biggest killer of children.


On to my 4 Liter “experience.”  I had some difficulty getting started. I spent the morning of my intended start date in the emergency room with my 2-year-old daughter, who was struggling to breathe (she’s fine now); and then, I spent the entirety of the following day in bed with the stomach flu, getting up only to vomit -- I finally commenced the challenge on Monday.  (Worth noting that, as I did not shower, have coffee or drink more than a large Gatorade for 24 hours on the day I was sick, I actually consumed less than a single liter of water the entire day.  Of course, I don’t think this is what DIGDEEP had in mind...)

On Monday morning, all I wanted to do was guzzle a gallon of cold water and take a 20 minute shower and I could do neither.  This pain was eased by the reminder that I was taking “a challenge” and not actually living in a place where I lacked access to an adequate and sufficient water source.

My water intake for the day was as follows:

  • Instead of the typical seven- or eight-minute shower (which would use about 70 liters of water), I put 1.5 liters of water into a tea kettle, warmed it up, and then used that to approach something resembling cleanliness.

  • Rather than brewing four cups of coffee (which would use about 650 ml of water), I pulled a single shot of espresso, using roughly 50 ml of water.

  • I relied primarily on hand sanitizer throughout the day, washing my hands only twice (100 ml each time), and used a total of 500 ml of water to brush my teeth twice and wash my face once.  Altogether, about 10 liters of water saved.

  • After factoring in all of the above, I had about 2 liters of water leftover to drink, which seemed insufficient in my state of dehydration, but would probably have been otherwise manageable.  (Adequate water intake for an average man is about 3 liters, per the Institute for Medicine.)

Unsurprisingly, I used all 4 of my allotted liters and saved the most water by not showering and not drinking an enormous amount of coffee (my two most cherished luxuries).  In total, I probably avoided wasting close to 100 liters of water for the entire day.


Mindfulness.  To me, the real value in the 4 Liters Challenge, apart from raising money for much needed water projects and awareness of the issue of water scarcity, lies in the mindfulness it forces us to bring to our daily water use.

Those of us in the “developed” world do not mindfully consume water -- “mindful consumption” of 400 liters of water a day is a contradiction in terms.  However, when restricted to just 4 liters of water for an entire day, every water-related activity becomes an exercise in mindfulness and reflection upon how much water we waste and how terribly important water is as a resource.  For example, waking up and heating a miniature container of water with which to wash, rather than running the shower for a few minutes before it gets piping hot and then standing in it for six or seven minutes because it’s probably the best part of the day, forces us to come to terms with how careless our daily shower practices are.  Ditto the use of tiny amounts of water for hand-washing and tooth-brushing, never mind refraining from use of dishwashers and washing machines.

The point isn’t that we should all stop showering or washing our hands -- quite the opposite -- but that we could all pay a bit more attention to our water use.  Don’t let the water run as frequently or for as long.  Take shorter showers.  Do the few, small things that can conserve the most of this, our most valuable resource.  In other words, pay attention.

Availability, luxury, and convenience.    When I got home from the ER with my daughter, we spent much of the day in a steamed-up bathroom to help her breathing (doctor’s orders).  Of course, I generated the humidity in the bathroom by running the shower on its hottest setting for 30 minutes at a time, multiple times.  Thankfully, it helped clear her airway, but it also used more than 250 liters of water each time.  What do those living in water poverty do when the prescription for their sick child would require more water than they would otherwise use over the course of a few months?

Not only was I able to help my daughter breathe, I was also able to postpone the limitations on my own water use until a day or time that was more “convenient.”   I took the day of her recovery to binge on caffeine and took a long, hot shower to wash away the stress.  Convenience and luxury are two concepts foreign to those living in water poverty.  The 4 Liters Challenge has instilled in me the hope that, each time I turn the faucet, I can remember that and remind myself:  This is water; don't waste it.

Images courtesy of the DIGDEEP via Facebook

Michael Kourabas headshotMichael Kourabas

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

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