Due to the pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions, here at the Freedom Farm we have suffered somewhat of a volunteer drought. All the work and preparation we put into developing a volunteer program that would feed our permaculture and environmental work came to naught when the borders closed and every single one of the volunteers we had booked for the 2020 season cancelled. The silver lining to this depressing situation was that it gave us the opportunity to reach out to like-minded people via the internet, and reach experts and organisations we probably never would have found.
One such person is Abby Pulham, a former climate change political advisor and water engineer who now lives in Spain with her family on a beautiful traditional finca (farm) where she is pursuing her goals of homesteading, permaculture and regenerative agriculture in the form of food forestry. She is also one of our Digital Volunteers who have not been deterred by the pandemic and are doing everything they can to help the Freedom Farm continue on with its environmental work by volunteering from home.
You can find Abby on Instagram and Facebook @unfincableadventures where she is photoblogging her off-grid adventures.
Why is water such an important topic right now?
Water has been an important topic for my entire career. I studied Oceanography more than 25 years ago, and back then we were talking about climate change, changes in ocean currents leading to dramatic changes in rainfall patterns, droughts, floods and the resulting human disasters. Since then I’ve witnessed the floods of England and Wales in 2000 which were considered once in a lifetime, but have happened on the same scale several times since; the European heat wave (2003) and the wintertime droughts in the Mediterranean region (1902–2010); Thailand floods in 2001; California droughts (2012-14) and more recently wildfires ripping through Australia and California, whilst the freezing weather in Texas right now is preventing access to water supplies into people’s homes.
The messages are still the same, catastrophes haven’t stopped coming, and if anything they’ve increased in frequency and severity. Our broadened horizons and more global outlook through the internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle could lead us to think this is just perception, but according to Oxfam the number of climate related disasters has tripled in the last 30 years. So this is reality.
I do think that there is an increase in awareness of climate change as more than just the melting ice caps, through Climate for Future and other initiatives. The US even has a President who believes in climate change now, so there is an awakening as reality really starts to dawn on us. Climate change is of course much more than just the weather, but the weather is what we see and feel every day. Water is connected to all these things. The changes in our localised weather as a result of climate change are increasingly obvious and undeniable, for example wetter winters and drier summers in the UK leading to winter floods and summer hosepipe bans, and longer dry seasons in Spain causing agricultural issues and desertification. As people see their immediate environment changing, they are waking up to how important water is in their landscape and lives.
There are so many problems in the world, does the water crisis really affect me?
For most people, the simple act of turning on the tap brings clean fresh water straight into their homes. It isn’t something that requires much thought. Where does it come from? What happens if it stops? The truth is, however, that water shortages have existed in the UK for decades. Summers are getting longer and drier (believe it or not) and winters are wetter and longer. Problematically, the water management systems in the UK have been set up to get rid of the rainwater that falls abundantly in the winter, for it to flow quickly into roadside drains and out to sea before it floods property and infrastructure. Holding on to that water, that precious resource, traditionally wasn’t necessary. It always rains in a British summer, right? Due to man-made climate change, the idea that Britain gets enough water is no longer a certainty. For the UK to be water self-sufficient in the years to come there have to be steep changes to reduce water usage at an individual household level, as well as large scale changes to the way in which water is managed nationwide.
Is this an issue for the whole world or just the places where they can’t afford proper sanitation?
I believe it affects us all. Of course in some of the poorer nations, the immediate impacts of water shortages or flooding are very visual, very obvious. Alongside the issues that follow such as food shortages and disease. Richer nations can clear up disasters more quickly and the affected people aren’t still living in tents 18 months later. However, with the globalisation of our food chain, even we can be impacted by water distribution changes in other countries that affect crop yields or even wipe out crops. The results are hard to ignore when they are leading to food insecurity and loss of livelihood for some, as well as a heartbreaking lack of avocados on the paleo-plate of the privileged. The question will be what happens when every day staples such as coffee and chocolate start disappearing from the supermarket shelves.
It seems like this in an issue that you are very passionate about and for good reason it seems. How has your passion for environmental issues factored into your decision to live off grid?
Initially our desire for off-grid life came from wanting to slow down. To enable us to be more together as a family. My partner had a job that took him away from home a lot, and I was at home with a young baby. We wanted to try to find a way in which we could be together more. That led us to look at what we really needed, what our priorities were. We realised we could live on a lot less if we reassessed what was important, and we realised that we could take that even further if we had the land and space to enable us to be more independent and provide for ourselves to a greater extent. I began also to look at the world with different eyes. What were we working to achieve? What future did we want for our son? This led me down a rabbit hole of exploration into self-sufficiency, permaculture, regenerative agriculture, homesteading, homeschooling, unschooling and off-grid living. We realised those goals were less feasible for us to achieve in the UK and when serendipity led my partner to pass through this part of Valencia in 2016 the seed was planted. He said it was a stunning region of Spain and to take a look on GoogleEarth… it all kind of snowballed from there.
Find out how the Freedom Farm got started here.
What sacrifices have you made in order to make these decisions? Has it been easy?
I had already changed career from environmental science to become a massage therapist. I closed my business when we made the move and became a full-time problem-solver. When you move to another country and don’t speak the language (when we arrived here we had no spanish at all) things are more complicated. Of course we chose an area of Spain with 2 languages which makes things even more complex. There are a lot of hoops to go through to achieve even small things and it’s taken us around 2 years to finally get planning permission to build our dream home here. So in the short term we have sacrificed personal space (we have lived for almost 3 years now in a caravan) and I guess a lot of day-to-day comforts, although to be honest I have never felt we lacked anything. Our washing machine has been broken for nearly a year and so we hand wash our laundry and we went for a year without hot running water when the original caravan water heater broke, but we didn’t mind. In the summer there is a hot outdoor shower and we got used to boiling kettles to wash ourselves and our clothing. It’s amazing how much stuff you really don’t need.
Can you describe what its like living on your finca?
We live in a standard caravan and converted the inside layout to suit us. It meant we could bring in our big comfy mattress from home and that is the thing I’m most glad we did. A proper bed is something we didn’t want to do without. We are powered with a combination of solar power for our electricity (lights and power sockets) and gas (for our heating, hot water and cooking). Inside just feels like a normal camping caravan and we are hooked up, just like you would be on a caravan site. Living in 10 square meters has definitely brought us closer. One thing we don’t have is a flushing toilet. That is outside in our luxury pallet-made bathroom. It has a toilet, sun heated shower and handwashing point. When we first came here we had a flushing chemical toilet but we quickly discovered it was a huge drain on our water use and totally unnecessary. We now use that one for pee only into a bucket that is emptied daily and used as fertiliser, and an external compost toilet which we use to fertilise the trees once it has properly decomposed into quality humanure.
Most days the sun is shining and the solar panels collect our energy and we don’t even think about where the power is coming from and that’s fantastic. After 3 days or so without sun we have to crack out the camping lights but that’s a rare occurrence since we upgraded to two solar panels.
Living here is totally different and I love it. We have a really special view that combines agricultural land – right now its pink with almond blossom – with wild regenerating pine forest areas. We can see other small houses but are far from our nearest neighbours. We are 5 kilometers or so from the village where we go to shop, market and where our son goes to school now.
We have daily tasks that have to be done to keep things running smoothly – emptying the toilet, topping up our water supply, watering the veggies, feeding the animals (we just have dogs and cats) and doing hand laundry every day prevents it getting too much. There’s other things like checking the battery fluid levels for our solar electricity, pruning trees, trying to gradually tidy up some areas to rescue fire risk or for planting. My partner works full time too so we have to balance our off-grid life with real life and connecting with the outside world.
How do you collect your water? Is this your ideal system or are you hoping to develop your system over time?
Our water system is really simple. It isn’t ideal but it was set up as a temporary solution until we got the house built. We just didn’t realise how long temporary was going to be! It works, its become part of our routine and there is no need to change it for now. Essentially we collect all of our water from natural springs. The closest to us is just a pipe coming out of the ground that feeds into an animal water trough. We collect the water into containers direct from the spout, load it into our little van and bring it home, then carry it to where it is needed. We collect about 120 litres or so at a time. Our usage is so low – around 40 litres per day – that we don’t need to go every day. We just collect when we are passing for shopping or another errand. We use other purpose designed “fonts” and “fuentes” and do washing in the public washhouses sometime too.
We have 2 containers on and above our caravan. Our land is a terraced hillside, so we have placed them 2 terraces above to get a good head of water to gravity feed our water supply. One goes to the caravan, so we turn on the tap and we get pure, untreated spring water on tap. The other tank (a black dustbin) supplies water to the shower. In the summer it, and the black hosepipe from it to the shower head can heat the water up to skin scorching temperatures just from the power of the sun.
All our waste water from the sinks and shower is collected and used in the garden. In the outdoor shower we stand in a large black tub – which doubles as our son’s bath – to collect the water as it runs off us and then carry it to where it is needed. A shower uses less than 5 litres a time which is super efficient compared to those luxurious but planet damaging power showers! It feels great to wash outdoors in the sunshine – very back to nature!
From the caravan all our waste water was collecting in two giant water cubes. But we found we aren’t using it quick enough and it was getting very smelly from the kitchen sink waste that inevitably washes down the pipe. This winter we have changed it, so we don’t collect the water. It currently filters through a simple barrel filtration system and then ends up at the base of a bush. My plan is to construct a proper soakaway for this waste water next into some sort of herb garden or fruit bushes before this next summer instead, so our dirty water from the caravan can grow something beautiful and tasty without carrying water around.
We also collect rainwater from the roof of our “garden room” a timber side addition to the caravan and this is used for the animals and cleaning things like muddy boots outdoors as well as watering plants.
What can the average person do to help make this situation better?
- When you do your washing up, use a washing up bowl and when you’re finished take that “grey water” and put it to good use. You can use it to water the garden quite easily or you can try using it to flush the toilet!
- Stop flushing the toilet! Use this old rhyme I learnt as a school kid in Australia “If it’s brown flush it down, if it’s yellow let it mellow”.
- Start collecting rainwater now, just because the tap still works doesn’t mean you shouldn’t future-proof your water supply. My favourite method is to install a diverter on your gutter pipe that fills a 250-500ltr barrel. The barrel has a tap so you easily take water to fill your watering can.
- If you’re not a gardener, you are now. Grow something, grow anything, but if you can start growing some food you can start reducing your consumer consumption and that can only be good news for the environment. Try something small like aiming to produce enough salad so that you can stop buying that nasty bagged stuff from the supermarket. It’s harder than you might think but with all that water you’re saving and collecting you’re already off to a good start.
Once you do have a garden, mulch it. It will drastically reduce your need to water in the summer months. Also try replacing your thirsty lawn with a productive garden area. A densely planted and well mulched garden is so much more interesting and useful and will probably use less water.