How We Learned to Conserve Water in Norway

(a version of this story recently appeared on Life in Norway)

Our very first trip to Norway brought us here in what many would consider the shoulder season. It was a cold and rain sodden journey where we used Stavanger and Bergen as jumping off points for longer hikes. The rain and resulting abundance of waterfalls became our impression of Norway.

This impression lasted until we came back for a three month long summer house sit in Oppland, which is mainly forest and lakes and farmland. Closer to Sweden than to the famous fjords, we were told that this is the real Norway. The coast is for tourists. The valleys and farms of the east are for Norwegians.

 The rushing water at Steinsdalsfossen

The rushing water at Steinsdalsfossen

In all truth, it looked much like our favorite parts of Minnesota only with much more elevation.

It turns out that Norway, like much of Europe, was suffering from a record breaking heat wave and a dry spell that hadn’t been matched since 1947.

Everybody we encountered talked about the heat and the sun and the lack of rain. There was evidence of rivers everywhere we hiked, but instead of burbling with encouragement, they grimaced at us with chapped lips. We walked on dry grass around stones and boardwalks built to help us pass boggy areas, and closed our curtains against the punishing afternoon sun.

 A Dry Norwegian Field

A Dry Norwegian Field

We were sitting in our living room behind these closed curtains discussing what life would be like without electricity (like you do) when a neighbor rang our doorbell. We were very startled because we didn’t know we had a doorbell, and hadn’t talked to our neighbors in the month of being here.

I greeted the man and he proceeded to tell us about the weather. He stood there shirtless and slightly sunburned, squinting to protect his fierce blue eyes from the afternoon sun.

He told us things we already knew. He told us about the drought. He told us about the heat and lack of rain. He told us that it’s an unusual summer. He then told us something we didn’t know. He told us that our well was running low. The water only comes to here, he said, pointing to his nipple. Normally it is well above here, he said, raising his hand way above his head. Point taken. We need to conserve water.

Before he left, he gave me a few easy tips about not showering often, not watering the plants and not doing our laundry very often. As he went through this list he looked in turn at my dirty hair, burned out weedy lawn and scruffy clothes. He seemed satisfied that water conservation wouldn’t be a problem for us.

I went inside and like any modern person, turned to Google to see what austerity measures Cape Town was imposing to conserve water before they got to what they call “day zero”.

There are a ton of simple ways you can save water beyond the ones mentioned above. The military shower (turning the water off while soaping up) and not letting the water run while waiting for it to get hot in the kitchen are my two favorites.

After a few weeks of this, we are quite used to conserving water. It’s amazing how much water we waste on a daily basis. We never really think about it when we are surrounded by lakes and rivers and the modern conveniences of running water at our fingertips.

We recently visited a rainy Bergen and marveled at the abundance. Our apartment there wasn’t on a well, so there was no mention of conserving water, even though they knew of the drought. But they knew of the drought in the same way I know about a bridge collapsing in Genoa, or wildfires in California. It’s different when you have to experience it every day. I still took a military shower.

Our drive back from the coast was wet. It rained the entire time, and we were happy to see the storm stretched all the way to Oppland. The day after we returned we went for a hike. We could hear rivers burbling and made use of the stones and bridges to cross the boggy areas.

I went back later with a bucket, watering can and a Camelback and filled them up with the clear rushing water. It felt like a harvest. It felt like a windfall. It felt like we had been given a bonus.

I carried all 22 liters of water the ½ mile back to the house while thinking of the millions of people who have to fetch their water every day.

My friend Google tells me that a billion people (mostly women and children) walk an average of 3.7 miles to fetch their 20 liters (or 44lbs) of water every day. Every day. This is astounding.

My hands were shaking when I got back to the house, and my mind is still reeling from the experience.

Learning to conserve water has changed me in ways I never expected. This is why we travel, right? To see how other people live. To be challenged and forced by circumstance to adapt.

I just never thought I would learn these lessons in a country that has so many natural resources like Norway.

How We Learned to Conserve Water in Norway