How to Live with a Water Shortage

Water Bucket Stack with Spigot

Water Bucket Stack with Spigot

If there is anything you can count on this year (2016), it is that if you live in Panama, your water will probably be shut off at least once.  Unlike the US during a water shortage, in Panama folks are not politely asked to conserve and possibly fined if they are caught watering their lawns. Things are lot more serious here – because the situation is more serious. It is dire, in fact. After two years in a row of very little rain, there is a serious water shortage all across the country. “No water” could mean exactly that, no water at all for an entire town.
In the hope of preventing this from happening, many municipalities are rationing water. “Rationing” usually translates into shutting the water flow off in specified areas for specified periods, so that everyone has an opportunity to get at least some.  In Peña Blanca it means one rises with the chickens and is home at 5pm promptly so as not to miss the allotted hours of flow.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a pain in the lower anatomy.  For any family it means brief, but heavy pressure on the bathroom, and an almost hysterical busyness in the kitchen twice a day.

There are a few things you can do to make living with a water shortage easier.

Get a Water Tank

Water Tank, Temporary Installation

Water Tank, Temporary Installation

The most obvious option is to get a water tank and stockpile the precious liquid. This will ensure that when the community supply is shut off you might not even notice for about a week, assuming you aren’t careless with your water.  If you do decide to go this route, first decide where and how you are going to install it.  If you put it underground, which will protect it from the sun and so forth, you will have to pump it to use it.  That means you will need electricity.  In making this decision, consider carefully whether you can count on having electricity when you need it.  If your situation allows for for above-ground storage with gravity feed, make certain that the tank you buy is “triple lined.”   It’s easy enough to tell if it is – the interior will be white.  Next, install it in the shade if you possibly can. These two considerations will save you hours of frustration and labor cleaning algae from your tank, not to mention providing a cleaner supply of water.

Join the Bucket Brigade

If a water tank isn’t in your future, you can still provide for your needs during shortages. Clean, used, food-grade five gallon buckets with lids are currently $2 each at many places in Las Tablas.  Make sure the buckets you buy were not used to store anything poisonous (paint, pesticide, etc.).  For several years I have coped with the water cutoffs by keeping a couple of buckets and an empty plastic ice cream container in the shower.  You can get quite clean dippering the water up to rinse yourself.

However, the MacGyver in me decided to raise my standards a bit.  I bought a whole bunch of buckets, filled them, and stacked them.  The top bucket of each stack sports a spigot, and now I have “running” water in the kitchen, next to the bathroom sink, and in the shower, whether the municipal flow is shut off or not..  A description of the setup is below, for those interested in potentially making their own.  Suffice it to say that when the water is turned off, I only slow down a little nowadays.  And I don’t have to get up with the parakeets unless I want to.

The water is purported to be “potable,” but these days I prefer the security of my British Berkefeld water filter for drinking water. so when I refill the buckets, I also refill the water filter while draining it into the gallon containers I reserve for drinking water.


These Are the Stacks That Jacqi Built

The top bucket in each stack has a spigot installed.  I was unable to find any bulkhead fittings here in the Azuero, so I ordered mine from

Drilling the Hole

I originally thought I would need a fancy drill bit to make the hole just the right size, so I bought a 1-1/8″ bit.  However, it just tore up the plastic.  I had a lot better luck making smooth-edged holes by first drawing the hole with a magic marker, then drilling a hole in the “center” of that and gradually widening it and smoothing the edges with the small bit.  It gave me much more control, and the bucket wall didn’t shatter and chip.

Installing the Bulkhead Fitting

The next obstacle was leaking.  The bulkhead fittings came with a washer, but they still leaked.  I bought a package of O-rings (pronounced “oarings” here) at a car/motorcycle parts store and when I put one on the side of the bucket opposite the washer, the situation sealed up perfectly.  (It took both.) Just be careful not to over-tighten the bulkhead fittings.

Stacking the Buckets

One potential issue is that the weight of the upper buckets pushes the lids of the lower buckets on tightly.  Getting the lids off again requires some muscle, which may or may not be an issue at your house. Those with more engineering expertise than myself may want to organize them horizontally or provide a way to pump water from the lower ones to the upper when the top bucket is empty.  For myself, I find I seldom empty an entire five gallons during the day, so simply refilling only the top bucket during the evening “Hour of Water” is fine.  If we have longer intervals between water as the drought progresses, I may rethink my process, but at the moment I hope my screwdriver as a lever and a few well-chosen “command words” (eg., “Open, d— you!”) will get the lower buckets open.  Then I will simply use a pitcher to move the water from a lower bucket to the spigot bucket, when I need to.  The stored water has been preserved with a couple of spoonfuls of chlorine bleach, which the internet informs me will keep it good for about six months.


The Kitchen Bucket Stack

If I had to pick the bucket stack that I use most frequently, this would be it.  I have two buckets stacked on the counter next to the sink, with a short hose on the spigot so the water is guided well into the sink.  Washing dishes using a dishpan to wash and then rinsing under a trickle from the spigot seldom uses more than two gallons.  I can wash fruits and veggies easily as well.  To date I have not used the water stored in the bottom bucket.  Since I didn’t expect to get into it right away, I put a spoonful or two of clorox in it.  If I haven’t used it by the end of June, I will change it out. (Water with a bit of chlorox should keep well for about six months.)  If I did need to use it, I would probably dipper off a gallon or so before pouring the rest into the bucket with the spigot.  Again, this is a situation someone with more engineering expertise than myself might want to address in his/her own situation.

The Bathroom/Toilet Stack

Water to the Bathroom Sink - Almost Like Having the Real Thing

Water to the Bathroom Sink – Almost Like Having the Real Thing

If I had to pick the bucket stack that has most improved my comfort level during the no-water hours, this would be the one. If I wanted to, I could route the hose to the toilet tank and refill it for a flush.  Because the toilet, while fancy looking, is a “lousy flush,” and I hate wasting the water, I usually (shhhh – don’t tell…) just flush once, scrub it out, and flush again, twice daily, when the water is flowing.  No, it isn’t pleasant to live with, but this specific bathroom fixture is, even under the most well-watered conditions, the worst of it’s kind I have ever encountered and I am reluctant to spend precious water dealing with it more than necessary.  If there is any thorn in my side with regard to living here, it is this specific porcelain demon.

In any case, being able to wash my hands and face and brush my teeth during the times of no water is a real blessing that I greatly appreciate.  The stack is four buckets high, with the spigot on the top one.  A piece of hose runs from the spigot around behind the sink spigot and is held in place by a rubber band.  It’s almost like turning on the water when it is running. So pleasant.

The Shower Stack

This one is five high and lets me easily wash and rinse my hair, as well as feel nice and clean and well rinsed.  A household with a tall man might want a taller stack.  A household with more than two in it would probably want two stacks, as a good hair wash and shower uses about two and a half gallons.  You can enjoy a wash almost as much just dippering up the water, however, and it’s a lot easier to maintain the buckets.  Since there is a set of faucets with a hose between my shower and toilet (I believe it is possibly intended for use as a bidet (or ?), I attached a rubber faucet extender and hose (to “wash your dog or your hair”) obtained from, which I run over the top of the shower surround to fill the buckets in the shower.  How you would fill yours would depend on your circumstances.

Have you any ingenious methods of storing water you would like to share?  Please do!  Tell us all by leaving a comment.