Smart Ways to Conserve Water During Drought (or Anytime)

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Water is life.

All good disaster planning includes water storage for a temporary disruption, but what if a prolonged drought forces you to take extreme measures? What are ways to conserve water over weeks,  months, or even years?

image: outdoor water spigot locked with padlock as ways to conserve water during drought


Lessons From Cape Town, South Africa

In 2017, in Cape Town, South Africa, residents were required to restrict their water use to 50 litres (13 gallons) per person per day during a severe drought.

That included:

  • drinking
  • flushing
  • garden
  • hygiene
  • dishes
  • and laundry

In contrast, most Americans use between 70-100 gallons of water daily!

Residents of Cape Town and other drought survivors devised clever ways to conserve water in extreme drought that we can learn from as many parts of our country dry out. We’ll cover those later in detail.

But first…

We Are Currently Headed Towards Our Own Water Disaster

If you follow the news, you probably heard that Lake Powell’s water level is so low that its hydroelectric plant is in danger of shutting down.

This is unprecedented.

Lake Powell has sunk to 28% of capacity.

Its sister reservoir, Lake Mead, is down to 26% of capacity.

This may be uninteresting to you unless you are one of the 40 million people that receive their water from these reservoirs. That’s 13% of the US population.

If you are one of these unlucky ones, expect unprecedented water restrictions in the coming months and years. Unfortunately, other areas may not be far behind.

Drought Conditions are Widespread

Drought conditions are not restricted to California and Arizona.

40% of the United States, including all western states from Montana down to Texas, is currently experiencing some form of drought. 25% of that is categorized as Extreme or Exceptional Drought. (See

Perhaps even more disturbing is the impact of drought on the farms and ranches in the west. California grows over a third of our country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. Drought conditions that impair the ability of California farmers to grow the crops needed will only add to our country’s food source instability.

Ultimately, drought conditions will impact all of us directly or indirectly.

So what can we as individuals do to conserve this precious resource?

These water conservation tips range from “no brainers” to radical, worst-case-scenario. You may not be prepared to use all of them now, but establishing good practices prepares you in case your water supply diminishes.

Easy Ways to Save Water and Money

We are meant to be good stewards of our planet and resources.

Water doesn’t need to be scarce in your area for you to use it wisely.

Water doesn't need to be scarce in your area for you to use it wisely. Here are smart ways to save water and money. Click To Tweet

The following ideas are “low-hanging fruit” that still result in significant water savings. Moreover, these are so simple as to rise to the level of common sense.

Pick one or three and start including them in your daily routine.

  • Install low-flow shower heads. This is super easy, and you won’t even notice a difference. Some towns and cities even provide them for free.
  • Don’t run the water while you brush your teeth or are shaving. Duh.
  • Defrost meat in the microwave or in the fridge overnight instead of in water.
  • Put a pitcher of cold water in your fridge so you don’t waste water waiting for it to cool.
  • Clean vegetables and fruits in a bowl of water instead of under the faucet.
  • Scrape dishes into the garbage or compost and skip using the garbage disposal to save water. Keep a small compost bin in the kitchen to make this easier and more automatic.
  • A dishwasher is generally more water-efficient than washing dishes by hand. However, if you need to wash dishes by hand, fill a second sink or container with water for rinsing.
  • Make sure dishwashers and clothes washers are full before starting a load.
  • When washing clothes, match the water level to the load’s size.
  • Take shorter showers. Set a timer to keep everyone in the family aware of water usage.
  • Water your lawn at night. This reduces evaporation of water.
  • Use a broom to clean your driveway or sidewalk instead of hosing it down.
  • Don’t let the hose run when washing your car. Instead, install a spray nozzle or turn it off until done soaping.
  • Insulate hot water pipes so you don’t have to wait as long for hot water.
  • Check for AND FIX leaks around toilets, sinks, and pipes.
  • Even if you don’t suspect a leak, put a couple of drops of food coloring in your toilet tank. If the water in the bowl changes color without flushing, you have a sneaky leak in your toilet.
  • Never pour water down the drain when there could be another use for it, like your pet’s water bowl or watering house plants.

Ways to Conserve Water During a Drought

If your region is consistently dry (as mine is) or if conditions cause water levels to be lower than normal, you may need to take more drastic water-saving measures.

Some of these require changes in habits, and some require spending money. However, all of them result in real water savings, especially collectively.

  • Install sink aerators. They mix air into your water, so you don’t notice a lower water flow.
  • Install water-efficient toilets. You can save literal gallons with each flush with newer models.
  • If you have an older toilet and aren’t ready to replace it, you can place a brick, rock, or bottle filled with gravel into your toilet tank. This fools your toilet into using less water to flush. Ingenious!
  • Staying with a toilet theme, don’t feel you have to flush every time you tinkle. 🙂
  • Cut your showers short. You can install a timer in your shower to remind you to keep it to 5 minutes or less. Depending on your water flow, a shower uses 2-5 gallons a minute, so every minute counts.
  • If you absolutely need to take a bath, only partially fill the tub.
  • Boil food in as little water as possible. You only need to just cover pasta or potatoes.
  • Place a steamer over boiling pasta and steam your vegetables. 2 in 1.
  • Save the water from cooking food and recycle it in other cooking or on your garden. That goes the same for water from canned vegetables.
  • Designate one water glass for each family member and just use the one for the day to save on washing dishes.
  • Plant drought-resistant trees and plants.
  • Mulch around your garden, trees, and plants to retain moisture longer. Also, read about ways to garden in droughts.
  • Cover pools.

Radical Ways to Conserve Water During Extreme Drought

There may come a time when nearly everything you do is focused around conserving precious water. The following ideas came from the personal experiences of a Cape Town resident and the personal account of long-time prepper, Jim Acosta, during a 2014 drought in California.

  • Think every time you open a tap and shut it off as soon as possible.
  • Put a bowl in every sink to catch water and then use it to flush toilets or, if it’s clean, in the garden or laundry.
  • Put a bucket in your shower to catch the water as it heats up. This is clean water, so you can use it for any purpose.
  • Put an instant hot water heater under your sink, so you don’t have to run water to warm it.
  • Put a greywater catchment system in your house. This method pumps or pipes water from sinks, showers, and laundry into grey water tanks or directly onto your lawn or plants. This is not safe for gardens but can be used to water trees, plants, and lawns. Greywater can also be used to flush toilets. Here is just one of many ways to build a greywater catchment.
  • Turn off the inlet valves on your toilet and use buckets of grey water to flush them.
  • Switch to biodegradable soaps and shampoos to make grey water safer for plants.
  • Limit showers to 90 seconds (apparently, this can actually be done).
  • Use biodegradable wipes, sponge baths, and dry shampoos instead of showers.
  • Wash clothes less. Use a soak cycle when you wash them to help clean them.
  • Capture rainwater using barrels, tanks, or pools. You can use rainwater for toilets or laundry.

Real-life Examples from Cape Town, South Africa

One Survival Mom reader, Andre, who hails from Cape Town, had this to say in 2018 when Cape Town was experiencing one of the most extreme modern-day droughts in history:

“We need at LEAST 450 million liters of water per day at the lowest possible usage. We are currently at about 540 million liters per day.

What people are missing, this coming season is there must be enough rain to not only supply the current need, but enough to fill the dams to cover the 2018/2019 summer period, too. What are the chances of that after three years of the worst possible drought, due to a high-pressure system not budging on the West Coast of Africa, keeping our rains away?

Cape Town and its surrounds are a huge contributor to the South African economy so if the rains stay away and we do run out of water, it can trigger an event to bring the entire country down if we cannot sort desalination in bulk, and that takes 2-3 years to put into place.”

Two Ways to Think About Water Conservation During Drought

Ultimately, Cape Town residents banded together and, in the millions, worked toward conserving every drop possible.

Here’s how they did it, according to Andre:

There are two ways to think about conserving water in a drought:

  1. WANTS – Throw lots of money at the problem like water tanks for your house, expensive filters, and all that.
  2. NEEDS – Be very wise financially, buy things secondhand to save money, and think about each liter of water used. 

The Biggest Problem During Extreme Drought May Not Be What You Think

The core problem I identified is not drinking water. That’s easy to buy in bulk and store.

The problem is sewage water. If you don’t flush that toilet, you will face some serious problems, not to mention smells.

So, here is what we did:

  • Rule 1: No baths ever, and shower only when you have to.
  • Rule 2: No watering the garden.
  • Rule 3: Catch all water used.
  • Rule 4: Wear clothes longer. If you sweat a lot, rinse your clothes whilst waiting for the shower to get hot.
  • Rule 4: All cisterns can only be filled with buckets. Closed the taps on all of them.

Before you open any tap, think! Then open the tap very small and close it ASAP. Catch that water for toilet use. Every drop adds up during the day.

Use Showers Strategically to Flush the Toilet

Invest in wet wipes and dry shampoo to be able to skip showers. Catch all the shower water in a bucket used for flushing the toilet only.

But, here’s the thing with showering.

You have to use the toilet, right? You can shower as quickly as you can, 90 seconds as advised, BUT if you run out of toilet water, you defeat saving shower water.

So use just enough shower water so that you can flush your toilet for the days you don’t shower.

Help the Dishwasher Save Water

Ensure your dishwasher uses less than 5 liters (1.32 gallons) per wash for dishwashing.

Strategies like water-efficient loading, eco-settings, and more can help your dishwasher save water.

The Washing Machine: The Biggest User 

In the end, after all the above was done, the washing machine was left being the biggest user.

A full load in the washing machine uses about 150-200 liters (39-52 gallons.) Now, you can spend a lot of money and buy one that uses less water, or always use a full load using the soaking cycle so that the clothes can soak properly, or you can wear clothes longer in-between washes.

So, we first caught the rinse water and then re-used it for the next load’s washing water. Then we stopped the rinsing cycle by simply changing the detergent we used. We now could wash more frequently.

We were able to catch a few liters of rain one day, so we started using rainwater for washing clothes. Using that rainwater, we did not use any drinking water for three washes with all that greywater used for toilets.

That was the best day ever!

We add HTH (pool chlorine) to the grey water stored in drums to ensure no smell. It works quite well.

Now, you can add pumps and pipes to transport water from one place to another, or you can get some exercise and fetch the water with a bucket for the toilets. We chose the exercise option.

The Results of Andre’s Family’s Efforts to Conserve Water

Before this drought all started, we used 25 kiloliters (6,604 gallons) per month for six people in our household. When we had to limit our usage to 50 liters (13 gallons) per person per day, through all these efforts, we dropped to a total of 5000 liters (1,320 gallons) per month for our entire six-person household. Four of us work from home.

Ultimately, the residents of Cape Town lowered their city’s water usage to about 510 million liters per day, down from 1.2 billion liters just three years earlier. As Andre said, “Low-cost changes with a massive impact on our usage.”


Water is a precious resource.

And whether you’re experiencing drought conditions or not, there are lifestyle changes you can make right now to be a better steward of our water supply.

A side benefit for us all, especially preppers, is that the water-saving measures necessary during disasters will be second nature to you.

Feel free to comment with your innovative ideas to conserve water during a drought.

4 thoughts on “Smart Ways to Conserve Water During Drought (or Anytime)”

  1. On demand electric water heaters usually cannot use a standard US wall outlet because they require a 220v line. Consider instead a 2 gallon electric water heater for use under a sink. It plugs into a standard wall outlet and can be put on a timer.

  2. Drought or no drought I like to keep a bucket in the kitchen area for collecting any leftover unsweetened tea or partially finished bottles of water (If I know the people will not finish it). I use that water for my houseplants usually. Occasionally I will have more than the houseplants need, so I use it in my outside planter potted plants.

  3. We have a very old septic system and here is our motto about flushing the toilet “If it is brown, flush it down, if it is yellow, let it mellow.

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