You truly do not know how precious water is until it is scarce.

Normally, I only feel that bit of water-related dred on camping trips when my family and I find ourselves having to meter out water in order to avoid an extra trip to the well. I have yet to truly rough it along a river and use purification tablets or a filter to ensure the water was potable. As a long time resident of the rainy part of the Northwest, I seldom go long without water surrounding me in some fashion. My family and I are fortunate. We do not want for water.

Practice emergency

Starting yesterday and lasting into the morning hours today, my family got to experience what it would be like to live on emergency water. It was a bit of a practice should we ever have a major disaster—natural or manmade—befall us.

Having your sprinkler system—see water everywhere and we still have irrigation systems for our moderate summers—freeze during an unusually cold winter can lead to sudden inability to control that system when it thaws again. Having not had this experience before, I didn’t know where my shut off valve was for the system, so I shut the water off at the meter cutting water to the entire house.

While it was warm enough to begin to thaw, the streets were still icy enough that landscape crews were not available to come out and help us find the irrigation valve, so we kept the water shut off and began our “practice emergency” with about 6 gallons of potable water.

Your children are not prepared… mine might be

Six gallons should be enough to get through a day for four people, a dog, a cat, and two chickens. That said, we were starting off our practice emergency from a deficit. According to Ready.gov, you should have one gallon of water per person per day, and at least a three day supply, to be ready for a emergency.

That would mean we should have started our practice emergency with at least 12 gallons of water for the people in our home. I need to look into how much the animals would need. Fortunately, they are not quite as picky as us humans. I’ve seen what my dog will eat and drink—it’s not pretty.

That said, we might have been closer to the prescribed amount than we thought if we were to get creative. Points to my teenage son for coming up with a couple of the possible sources at our disposal:

We also had some cans of La Croix (yes, I’m slightly addicted to the bubbly stuff), 2 or 3 bottles of juice, a half gallon of milk, maybe a quart of half in half as additional liquids on hand.

All told, that’s about 34 gallons (128 liters) of liquid to sustain us in an emergency.

But how quickly it would disappear

We knew we were likely getting water service back online in less than 24 hours. So we were frivolous. We used most of our large jugs of water for flushing toilets, washing up, brushing our teeth. Just knowing water was scarce made us a bit more desirous of it. All of us felt noticeably more thirsty.

Water was used quite quickly. By morning, we had polished off about 5.5 gallons of our jugs of water. 5.5 gallons gone in about 18 hours including 8 hours of sleep.

Emergency preparedness is a luxury

The fact we had water on hand that could get us through a short emergency is a dream for many. Whether it be wars or drought, water is a scarce necessity to many. Unicef recently reported that nearly 750 million people will without adequate drinking water. That’s about 1 in 10 people in the world. Water.org reports that 1 in 3 people worldwide lack access to a toilet.

The U.S. is not immune

From Flint, Michigan to Portland Public School in Oregon to yearly droughts in California, the United States is not without its own water issues. Just last week, my kid’s winter concert and arts event had a stunning music and dance performance that focused on the issue of water and the experiences of “the water bottle generation”. Grant High School and many other schools in the area have been on bottled water due to unsafe lead levels found in the water system last year. The school district is still figuring out how to retrofit all these schools without a true budget option to do everything they should; for now, they will settle for doing the minimum they must.

Water is a basic human right

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

— Declaration of Independence

While the U.S. constitution does not guarantee everyone access to clean water, it does suggest that “Life” is a basic right. I feel quite comfortable making the logical connection that water is life. Every human body is made up of water more so than any other compound.

In 2010, the United Nations even adopted a resolution stating that water is a basic “human right”. While that resolution has so many caveats as to be practically unenforceable, it at least stands as an attempt to recognize that humans must have water to survive.

Perhaps it is more than just a right. If we do not address this need, we risk violence and collapse of destabilized governments. The world is less safe without addressing basic human needs like water, food, shelter. If we tell people they can only have these basic needs met if they fight for them… then eventually they will fight.

What can we do

Support nonprofits that recognize the importance of the environment and water’s role in human rights. Give. Volunteer.

Conserve water. It is more than just shorter showers. Make sure to spend time every year with limited water usage in mind. It’s eye opening to camp or practice for an emergency.

Vote. Government is not the enemy of freedom. Push for better programs that do what they should do. You are lying to yourself if you think government programs make you less free. Poorly run programs are just that—poorly run—but there are fewer of those than some would assume. Most government programs actually give you important benefits that you would not have if you did not live with other people in a shared experience of location and belief systems. Laws are passed to protect that shared experience. That’s a good thing. That’s what nations should be.

Freedom is created by people living in a state of shared benefit. Access to clean water is a pretty powerful indicator of freedom.

You can’t have freedom by yourself. It must be shared.