Water and Simple Living

The following us an updated version of an assignment submitted for my study in Writing the Zeitgeist at Curtin University.

Live simply so that others may simply live – Gandhi.

The other night, while watching the SBS program ’Go Back to Where You Came From’, I was struck by segment of the program about the woman in the Ethiopian UNHCR camp, who had to walk over one kilometre with containers to get her daily water supply. When she arrived at the water taps, with the film crew and show participants, there was no water. The camp had been in this location for over three years. In the background was a high, strong security fence, with rows of new four wheel drive vehicles and trucks for the UNHCR staff. Surely, after more than three years of existence, there would be a much better water supply, as well as better housing for the refugees.

This story segment which included all the tents, flapping in the desert wind, brought back to mind the quote from Gandhi. Where have we, as a species, gone wrong? Why do we have wars and conflicts? Is is just because of greed – of wanting more? By us wanting more, someone is going to have to miss out. Food supply experts have stated that there is enough food produced in the world to eliminate hunger, but that the problem is most of it is used for the production of livestock feed to produce meat.

One looming problem that mankind has to solve is the coming shortage of water. Peak oil is a problem already being widely discussed, but peak water is something that is being overlooked in many countries. It is estimated that by 2025, two out of three people will face water stress; that is, they will not have enough water for their daily need. An Australian example of this problem was experienced during the recent drought in the Murray-Darling Basin and the pressure on water supplies to Broken Hill, Adelaide and other towns in the basin. Water stress is also evident in places like Yemen, and in many other African countries. One of the problems with meat production is the amount of water that is required for each kilogram produced. With the growing world population, by 2050 experts have forecast that there will not be enough water to grow the animal feeds required .

So how much water do we consume each day, apart from what we drink from the tap? A 125ml glass of wine with dinner – 120l, a 250ml glass of orange juice – 170l, a hamburger – 2400l plus an egg which adds another 135l, the cotton t-shirt that I wore today – 4100l, and the shoes I’m wearing – 8000l, one sheet of the A4 paper that was used to print this essay – 10l, and between 16,000 to 100,000l per kilo of beef. Every country that exports food, is also exporting water .

I live a lifestyle that many people find hard to accept in the area where I have my home. I have no mains power, only solar with a backup diesel powered generator. All my water comes from either tanks collected from the buildings I built myself from local timber (well, I did buy new corrugated iron), or from run-off into a couple of dams. The dam water is used for toilet flushing and water the animals (chooks, dogs, macro-pods, and birds) orchard and plants around the house that provide nectar for the birds and insects, and something nice for us to look at, and a fire break of sorts. Our house is mostly constructed from mud bricks that we have made ourselves, with all the timber being cut by me from either the property or local native forests.

When we first moved here, we lived in a tent, and had to cart water. I can empathise with the refugees. It took a few years to get the shed built, the solar panels installed and tank attached because I was working full time. It was great to have 24×7 power again, as well as running hot and cold water. I put water into the house of my great aunt, who was born on January 1st 1900, in the late 1970’s. She had carried water into the house all of that time for washing clothes and dishes. She did have a flushing toilet and shower (hot water from a chip heater).

All of the doors, windows, shelving, kitchen cupboards and the like are recycled. I will admit to having a digital TV and a Blue-Ray player for entertainment. We did investigate installing a composting toilet, but after having used them in National Parks and roadside rest areas, decided that health and cleanliness was of greater importance. The water that does come out via a reed bed is used to water some trees and plants that provide shade and shelter, so I don’t consider the toilet to be a great water consumer.

I was raised in a family of six, with my paternal grandmother living with us as well. We had dams for the garden, but only a 15,000 gallon rainwater tank for the household and washing utensils in the dairy in a 25 inch rainfall area. As a result, the family was extremely careful in using the rainwater. We did run short on occasions. It still pains me to see taps dripping, water cisterns leaking, and lawns and gardens being irrigated. It also causes me angst to see farmers still using flood irrigation for low value crops and growing grass for cattle.

The future for the water in the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) is causing many problems for all people concerned: the people who live, and work there; politicians both federal and state; as well as those who depend on the water from it. The MDB is vitally important to the food production and export income of Australia, as it ’ generates 39% of … the agricultural income, 53% of Australia’s cereal production, 95% of the oranges, 54% of the apples, 28% of the cattle herd, 45% of the sheep herd, and 62% of pig herd’ . Only 4% of the rainfall in the basin is run-off for dams and rivers; the rest evaporates or drains into the ground. Over 35% of the runoff occurs from 12% of the basin area in catchments of the Murrumbidgee, Upper Murray, Goulburn, Broken and Lodden Rivers .

Professor Tim Lang introduced the concept of food miles in 1990, the aim of which was to ’highlight the hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production to consumers in a simple way, one which had objective reality but also connotations’. His article was important in raising awareness of the issues relating to where food is grown and the cost of transporting it to where it is consumed. A 2008 Choice report states that ’ a typical basket of groceries from the supermarket has “food miles” equivalent to two loops of the globe’ .

Another way, and it has been suggested a better way of analysing the true cost of food and our other requirements is via life-cycle analysis, which takes into account the inputs and outputs of energy involved in production, processing, packaging and transport of the food to the point of purchase, as well as air, water and waste pollution, and resource depletion.

We all need to be very conscious of our consumption patterns, choosing our foods very carefully. It’s very easy to buy the house labels at a low cost, when we all need to save money. Sometimes those foods are produced at a cost to the foreign countries farmers, who don’t have enough food or income for themselves, or they grow them in place of their own food for their own consumption. This is demonstrated by the clearing of Amazon rainforest to grow soy beans for export to Europe for cattle food and oil production, leaving the local people without food.

By growing our own foods as much as possible, even with a patio or balcony garden or small aquaponics system, and being aware of the water used to produce our foods, food miles and life cycle of the products, and by cooking and preserving our own foods, we can not only reduce our living costs, but also live more simply, and allow others in the world to simply live.

Cycling and Aquaponics

It is important that before adding plants and fish to your newly aquaponics setup that you start it cycling. No, I don’t mean go and ride your bike, but you need to establish the bridge between the fish and plants by establishing the bacteria.

Bacteria are the magic ingredient that converts unusable fish waste to plant fertiliser. The bacteria create a symbiotic eco-system without the problems that are found in aquaculture and hydroponics.

Cycling is the process that establishes the nitrogen cycle in the system. The nitrogen system is the ongoing process that converts ammonia produced by the fish into nitrates that the plans can consume.

Aquaponics Nitrogen Cycle
Aquaponics Nitrogen Cycle

Cycling starts when you add ammonia (NH3) from fish or other sources into the system. Ammonia is toxic and can quickly kill fish unless diluted or converted into another less toxic form of nitrogen. Ammonia is not readily used by plants, and must be converted by bacteria into a plant usable form.

Ammonia attracts a nitrifying bacteria called Nitrosomonas, that converts the ammonia into nitrites, which is even more toxic to fish. The presence of nitrites attract another nitrifying bacteria call Nitrospira, which convert the nitrites into nitrates which are the plant food needed.

It is important to regularly test the water in the aquaponics system to monitor ammonia, nitrite and nitrate, and pH levels, to ensure that they are kept in range.

You can start the cycling process using fish, but this is perhaps the most stressful option, as they can die. It is also possible to start the nitrifying process using liquid ammonia (pure ammonia or pure ammonium hydroxide), or humonia (pee-ponics). To start using these methods, add ammonia until the reading is 2-4ppm, and keep adding that amount daily until nitrite appears at over 0.5ppm. If the ammonia level goes over 6ppm, stop adding the ammonia, until back between 2-4ppm.

I think it is important to add plants to the system before starting cycling, as they can start using any nitrates in the system. My water in the system already had ammonia, nitrites and nitrates as I took it from my dam containing fish, ducks and yabbies.

Seasol, a seaweed based fertiliser available in Australia, is also an excellent way to start the cycling process. After adding the Seasol, and plants, check the ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and pH levels, wait 2 weeks, then fish can be added at a low density. More fish can be added once the system has stabilised and plant growth has started.

Plants and Aquaponics

Fish and plants are the main components of the aquaponics system. The growbed media provide the environment for the conversion of the ammonia produced by the fish, into nitrates that the plants need to grow. Your family consumes some of the plants, while some can be used to feed chickens or even back to the fish. The fish produced fertiliser can produce enough food to make a huge reduction in your weekly grocery bill.

So what plants can I grow successfully? The question ‘what doesn’t grow well’ will provide a much shorter list. The only plants in this latter list are those who do not like a pH much above or below a neutral 7.0, such as acid liking blueberries and azaleas, and alkaline preferring plants such as chrysanthemums, calendula, an zinneas.

Root crops will grow very well, but you may not recognise the final shapes, because it finds it difficult to expand in the growbed media.

Apart from these few exceptions, anything that can grown in soil can grow in aquaponics successfully. I am successfully growing rhubarb, strawberries, leeks, beetroot, salad greens, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, tomatoes, coriander, parsley, kale, spinach, silver beet and more. I am limited by my seed library and food requirements.

I have broadcast beetroot, salad greens and lettuce seeds and they are successfully growing. I’ve had trouble with bean seeds rotting as they are too wet, so I’ve resorted to germinating on wet paper towel and then transplanting. This also works well for peas, melons and cucumbers. I like them to grow where I want them, not where they germinate, as placement is very important. I put the seeds on wet paper towelling, and place into a ziplock bag, checking them daily. Once the root is about 25mm, I gently plant them into the growbed media, with the root in wetting zone.

I have also bought seedlings and, after carefully washing the seed raising mix from the roots, planted them into the wetting zone of the growbed media.

In the future, I am planning to start seeds in vermiculite or worm castings or even grow plugs to reduce the costs of the plants. Some plants like bamboo and some natives that I grow in soil, can be very successfully started from cuttings inserted into the growbed media. With cuttings, do not use rooting hormones as it can affect the fish in the system.

Aquaponic Rules of Thumb

  • Avoid plants that prefer acidic or alkaline soil conditions.
  • Plants for aquaponics can be started in the same way for soil based gardening.

If the plants are looking unhealthy after a few months:

  • check your pH balance
  • insects

Mindfullness and Sustainable Living

Mindfulness can be the answer to many of the problems each one of us faces every day.

mindfulness
Mindfulness

So what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the practice of living in the here and now.

Be.Here.Now.

Simple. For example, how often when you are washing your dishes are you thinking about something else? When you are washing dishes, you should be thinking just about washing dishes. When you are shopping for food, are you hungry and thinking about what you want to eat? Supermarkets like this, because you end up buying a lot of things you really don’t need.

By living in the present moment, and paying attention to the thoughts that float through our brain, you become more in control of your life. You can think about whether your actions and proposed purchases are sustainable, and do not use planetary scarce resources.

It takes practice to do this and a couple of daily meditation sessions are extremely beneficial to our health and controlling our feelings and desires. It is very important to be mindful because to think about sustainability takes a lot of effort to overcome old, ingrained habits. It is important to constantly ask yourself if this decision is going to have the least impact on the planet.

As you practice, and constantly remind yourself to be in the moment, you will gradually increase your freedom and your life will become more sustainable.

What do we mean by ‘sustainable’?

The dictionary provides lots of different definitions of this term. The meaning I am going to adopt is ” to supply with food and drink, or the necessities of life, as persons”. While this doesn’t match the meaning adopted by other authorities such as the United Nations, I think it defines my approach to sustainable living better.

While many businesses and organisations debate sustainability and how to define it, and the definition of “triple bottom line”, I am getting on with my approach to being sustainable living in providing food, shelter and energy to meet my life’s requirements.

Beyond the basic necessities (food, clothing and shelter) for sustaining our physical life, how much money and other possessions do we really need? These questions are often not investigated and pondered upon, but we spend our lives trading our time and skills for money. A life that is free and meaningful does not need the latest fashion or gadgets or expensive overseas holidays or the latest model car. Working long hours really doesn’t allow the time we need to look after our spiritual needs and for time to spend with family and friends – the things that make for an enjoyable life. Being rich is a state of mind, not a bank balance figure.

I’m not saying that money is not important – it is, up to a certain level. Once our basic needs are met, pursuing more money distracts us from the important things in life. It’s easy to become entangled in a consumerist society, and to think that consumerism provides freedom. Consumerism is destroying the very planet that we live on. Everything we consume is provided by our planet, and ultimately is returned back to it. Climate change and disappearing ecosystems are the indicators of our over consumption. How much longer can we persist with our consuming patterns before we go beyond the point of no return? Some scientists already think that we have gone beyond the tipping point with our production of carbon dioxide induced climate change. We need to remember past climatic climaxes that mean that all humans have come from an estimated 600 breeding pairs of homo sapiens. Is this going to happen again?

So what can we do? Are there alternatives? Much research is occurring in this area. Already research has shown that we are past peak oil production, but we are still not embracing renewable energy sources at the rate we should be. We are also at or past peak water consumption, with many countries populations experiencing water stress i.e. less water than they require each day to maintain a healthy life.

I think that we all have a responsibility to minimise our use of resources. Sure, I still have a phone, TV and many other ‘things’, but I am constantly reducing the ‘stuff’ that I have. I am building my own home from timber sourced from local native forests in a sustainable way, I have solar power with a backup diesel generator, a solar hot water system, chooks, and will soon add some cattle, as well as aquaponics providing fish and vegetables and an orchard (replanted this year, as most of our trees died off during the drought).

I am not self-sufficient by any means, but I am slowly requiring less resource inputs from

Twisted Savonius Wind Turbine
Twisted Savonius Wind Turbine

outside of my property. We use about 20l of diesel per month to cover our power requirements from the backup generator each month. When it is overcast, solar cells do not work very well, and I only have enough battery capacity for about 3 days. I will be making some vertical wind turbines to reduce our diesel requirements.

We harvest all of our water from rain – some stored in dams for the gardens, orchard and aquaponics (doesn’t use very much), with household water for drinking, washing, cooking and showering coming from a 27,500 litre tank. Once I have the verandahs on the house completed, I intend to install a 250,000 litre tank to store the water from a combined catchment of 350 square metres. Each millimetre of rain provides 1 litre of water per square metre of roof area (350 square metres by 660 mm = 231,000).

Future posts are going to expand on what we can do and what I am doing in particular to reduce my impact on the planet’s resources.

 

 

Energy

It has been said that energy is the lifeblood of our civilisation. The rise of energy production has propelled our civilisation forward. As stated in another post, our civilisation is already past peak oil and probably even past peak water. We must urgently reduce our energy consumption as it produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide which is a large component of climate change and the destruction of ecosystems. Energy costs are rising steadily, and will increase much more over the coming years due to scarcity.

So what can you do?

Power Line Addition
Power Line Addition

You can encourage the production of “green energy” by buying it on your electricity. I live off-grid by choice. It was going to cost over $100,000 ten years ago to be connected to mains power. We decided to install a solar energy system, that provides enough for our simple lifestyle, even with 3 to 4 days of heavily overcast weather. Yes, we do have a backup diesel generator for those periods with not enough sunshine, and to run the welder and other high energy consuming appliances. I generally use less that $20 per month on diesel. In the near future, I will be constructing some vertical wind turbines to provide power during windy and normally overcast weather to supplement the solar panels (8 off 125 watts at 24 volts).

You can also install your own solar panels and sell the power generated back into the grid. Many thousands of people do this, and many even receive a cheque at the end of each billing period. You can reduce your energy consumption in your house be turning off appliances at the power point, not just by putting onto standby with the remote control. Sure, they take a little longer to start up, and you need to actually go the power point to switch them (more exercise). You can choose to set your thermostat to 23 or 24C which will generally lower your energy consumption by at least 10%.

Run On Sun Solar Hot Water System
Run On Sun Solar Hot Water System from http://www.runonsun.com.au/www.runonsun.com.au/SHW-evacuated_tube_solar_hot_water..html

Installation of a solar hot water heater with either gas or wood fire backup is also a great money saver. Before installing our current hot water system, we were using a 9kg gas bottle every three weeks for cooking and water heating. Now the same gas bottle is lasting over 2 months. The solar hot water system installed will tolerate down to -15C, and here has to be covered up over summer with shade cloth to prevent the water boiling!

It has been suggested that using electric vehicles is a good idea, and many manufacturers are now providing them. Research has shown, that in many instances, they actually make more pollution and use more energy than traditionally powered vehicles.

The article at http://newmatilda.com/2012/10/04/renewables-will-win-ballot-box demonstrates how important alternative energy sources are now and will be into the future. For me it is disappointing that so many of our great ideas about alternative energy have been swallowed up by oil companies and bureaucracy. White Cliffs in western NSW had one of the first solar powered generating plants in Australia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Cliffs_Solar_Power_Station), but is now grid connected. Australia should be a world leader in alternative energy, but California is, with is super saline systems and salt energy storage systems.

Breamlea Wind Generator
Breamlea Wind Generator

The sun is a great nuclear power station, that in turn creates light and weather systems here on our planet. All alternative energy systems make use of the energy that originates from the sun. I believe that we do not need more nuclear or coal or gas powered generator systems. We have enough sources already, and all that is required is people power and government direction.

The Birth of My Aquaponics System

In a previous post, I outlined the reasons why I decided to use aquaponics for producing fresh food for us. In this post, I am going to provide a photo essay of its development.

This link at http://www.aquaponics.net.au/chops.html demonstrates the basic water flow through a system, and how mine works. Click on the start/stop button to watch.

What follows are images of the development of my system.

System Components
System Components
Digging hole for sump tank
Digging hole for sump tank
View from sump tank up to grow beds
View from sump tank up to grow beds
Grow bed media
Grow bed media
Grow bed media showing syphon
Grow bed showing syphon
Plants in at last
Plants in at last

Everything growing now

Growth at 14th October 2012
Growth at 14th October 2012

 

And yes, those leaves are strawberries, next to rhubarb.

Starting With Aquaponics

Growing up on a dairy farm meant that we always had fresh milk, and Grandma used to have a wonderful vegetable garden using aged cow manure as a fertilizer and soil conditioner.

Fast forward nearly 50 years, and I now live a long way from the dairy farm, in a fairly arid area. When we moved onto the bush block, I tried gardening using traditional methods. Sure, I managed to grow some herbs, and salads, but that was all. The tree roots would rob the plants of moisture, and so after a couple of years changed. I made a tunnel using reinforcing mesh and 50% shade cloth. The garden beds were lined with builders plastic and filled with aged cow manure and soil. It worked very well, producing good quantities of vegetables and herbs year round. I even managed to have tomatoes and bell peppers survive over winter with our heavy frosts.

Aquaponics NFT System
Aquaponics NFT System

It took about 3 years and the tree roots penetrated the plastic garden bed liners, and production dropped dramatically as the trees stole the moisture. While living and working in Alice Springs, we stayed with friends who had created an aquaponics system using recycled bath tubs and spas, with 200 silver perch. It worked very well, and provided a lot of herbs and vegetables for everyone staying there.

I have tried hydroponics before. It worked well, but I had to keep buying the minerals and fertilizer mix, as well as dumping the water every so often. I considered the dumping of the water a huge waste, especially here, were we get 600mm annual rainfall and 2.5m of evaporation.

I’ve tried aquaculture, but because I never had a large, continually flowing source of water, could never stock the fish densely enough to make it worthwhile. Also, the water had to be dumped occasionally.

With aquaponics – a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, the media in the growing beds act as a biological filter for the fish. To me, it is the best of both worlds, and I get fresh fish as well as vegetables.. According to research, it takes only 10% of the water to grow the same amount of vegetables as would grow in soil.

Commercial Raft Tank
Commercial Raft Tank

There are many different ways to set up an aquaponics system, ranging from small fish tank size with one or two small growbeds suitable for the balcony or the edge of the patio, to full grown commercial systems producing tonnes of fish and vegetables. A cheap way of getting started, that works well is to use IBCs – International Bulk Containers – of 1000l capacity. As long as the ones used have not contained chemicals, they can be cleaned and used. For more information about many different ways of using these containers, visit and download the free IBC of Aquaponics publication from http://www.backyardaquaponics.com/Travis/IBCofAquaponics1.pdf. There are also many YouTube videos available to view to see how the systems work.

My IBC based aquaponics
My IBC based aquaponics

After about 6 months of research and design, I started getting mine established. I was given 6 IBCs, and I had a couple that I used to use for water carting. My system is referred to as a CHOP2 system – that is the sump tank pump is below the growbeds, and pumps about 80% of the water through the grow beds, and about 20% through the fish tank. The fish produce ammonia, which the bacteria in the grow bed media convert to nitrites and eventually to nitrates which the plants can use.

Food

Oxfam has stated that for the sixth time in the last 11 years, the world is going to consume more food than it produces. This is caused by unusual weather conditions in the USA, Russia, and other major food exporting countries. It is estimated that staple food prices will double in the next 20 years, which will be disasterous for poor people around the world.

So, you wonder, what does this have to do with you? For starters, more of your income is going to go to paying for the food you and your family need to survive. More people are going to be hungry, and get more diseases, and more people will die because of malnutrition (especially children, who are most susceptible).

What can you do? Well, you can do a number of things.

  1. You could start a small garden at your home on your balconey or in your yard or on the road verge.
  2. You could join or start a community garden program.
  3. You could shop at your local farmers market, which in turn encourages them to grow more food and sell locally.
  4. You could contact a local farmer and buy direct from them or even form a cooperative with others to do the same.
  5. If you have the room, you could start your own aquaponics project. From the space of a single car carport, you should be able to produce enough food to feed 4 people.