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Shrinking options

May 15, 2016


Recycle plastic bottles for drip-feeding
Recycle plastic bottles for drip-feeding

“Is it realistic to maintain a year round garden in a country suffering increasingly dire water shortages?” the writer was recently — and very seriously — asked. “Surely it would be more sensible, especially in urban areas, to ban gardens of any kind, so that the water thus saved can be distributed in poor localities where people stand in queue for long hours at standpipes or tankers, in an all too often vain attempt at filling a few cans for their daily needs?”

The questioner, a studious young man from France, caught me completely on the hop as, I am ashamed to say, he did — and does — have a point, and for me to not just mention it, but stress it here, should illustrate just how shockingly serious the situation has become.

Each and every single urban area — from the mega-sprawl that is Karachi right through the entire gamut in between to the formerly, before it was wrecked by over-development, Hill Station of Murree — limp from one painful water shortage to the next with, as the years pass, the ‘water in the tap’ periods becoming less and less common all round.

Yes, I am well aware that some — perhaps even many — of you are fed up of the words ‘climate change’, but you have to admit, like it or not, that our climate certainly has, particularly in the last few years, undergone an extremely nasty transformation. Far more heat, longer droughts, shorter yet more intense periods of rain often result in flooding yet, as a direct result of long-term mismanagement / lack of foresight, deluge after deluge wreaks havoc and then is simply gone — without being stored against the inevitable droughts which follow.

With ever-persistent water shortages it is advisable to use alternate methods of watering your garden

As a people, or so it seems, we are in the habit of craving something when it is in short supply and then, being totally irresponsibly, wasting it when it’s there without any thought of creating balance. On the one hand, people paying Rs10,000 per tanker of questionable water (the price current and rising in line with the temperature) and then using at least half of it, often more, to maintain blatantly ‘lush green’ lawns, while on the other hand nearby a mother has no water to offer her dehydrated children, let alone to keep them clean, is indicative of societal rot of the potentially fatal kind.

With the heat well and truly on, again, this summer and the city’s ‘heat island effect’ threatening to take inner-city temperatures completely off the scales, it has to be admitted that the young Frenchman does have a valuable humanitarian point, but it is also of extreme importance that we green up our cities — the entire country needs re-greening to be frank — so banning gardening is not the answer: conserving and then using water wisely is.

The art of urban gardening must be redefined if it is to remain viable and here are just a few ideas:

  • Do not use potable (drinkable) water for gardening purposes. Use ‘grey water’ or ‘black water’ instead. Grey water is water recycled after household use: this is absolutely fine for garden use providing that household residents switch to using eco-friendly cleaning products, soaps, shampoos, laundry soap, etc, instead of accumulatively toxic, chemical based ones. Dish-washing water, strained to remove food residue, is good too as long as it does not contain grease. Grey water, in line with any water, should not be left standing around, uncovered, a second longer than is necessary, otherwise it will attract breeding mosquitoes. If possible, look into having a specialist grey water collection system installed in your home, leading to an outdoor / underground tank for garden use. Black water is 100pc recycled sewage water and may not be so easy to source but do examine available options if they exist in your locality.
This is the garden following economy of water
This is the garden following economy of water

  • The installation of rainwater harvesting systems, from homemade, small-scale efforts to specially designed ones, is an absolute must for eco-minded gardeners.

  • Avoid planting water hungry species, select drought tolerant — or at least less thirsty — species instead.

  • Water plants only when needed instead of on the more usual daily basis which can, for 99pc of plants, promptly be reduced to every other day or even longer.

  • Do not allow malis unrestricted, un-supervised use of hose pipes as, sadly, they are in the bad habit of over-watering everything within range. Train your mali to check soil moisture and to water with the utmost care. Every single drop counts.

Lush green lawns guzzle incredible amounts of precious water / Photos by the writer
Lush green lawns guzzle incredible amounts of precious water / Photos by the writer

  • Ban hosepipe use completely if possible, switching over to the ‘matka system’ of watering or to drip watering via the use of upside down, plastic bottles, with a small hole made in the lid and bottom sliced off for easy filling with recycled water. These are sunk into the soil, the water slowly seeping into the surrounding plant roots where it is needed and the water topped up as required. Trial and error will teach you how tiny the drip hole should be and what size of bottle is sufficient to irrigate what size of land / plant-pot / container.

  • Finally — and regular readers will have anticipated this — a complete ban should be imposed on ‘lush green lawns’ as these ‘criminal vanities’ guzzle incredible amounts of precious water. Rip them out and replace them with fruit trees, vegetable and herb gardens instead; if you do not need the produce — organic please — someone else will.

Please continue sending your gardening queries to Remember to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine May 15th, 2016