Can You Cut Your Water Consumption by 90 Percent for 24 Hours?

A nonprofit challenges people to live off a gallon of water a day, instead of dumping it on their heads

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

When the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge gained unprecedented social-media success earlier this year, with its campaign to raise awareness and funds for Lou Gehrig's Disease, not everyone was convinced. For every few people that posted themselves getting doused in ice cold water, one or two seemed to publicly question the logic of wasting water—5 million gallons to be exact—to raise money for charity when much of the world, including parts of the United States, is in the middle of a historic drought.

This month, Los Angeles-based human rights charity DIGDEEP has a challenge for those skeptics. The #4Liters challenge asks participants to live on that much water (a little more than a gallon) for 24 hours—for everything including bathing, cooking, drinking, cleaning, and hygiene—and then to document it on social media. As the average American uses an estimated 400 liters (105 gallons) of water per day, DIGDEEP founder George McGraw says the challenge is designed to get Americans to think about a term that doesn’t often get mentioned: water poverty.

“The reason Americans don’t change their behavior when we’re told we’re in the worst drought is because we take water for granted,” says McGraw, who noted that during last year’s drought in California, Los Angeles residents’ average water consumption actually increased, despite awareness efforts surrounding conservation.

A human rights lawyer by training, McGraw says water is a rare cause that doesn’t require separating people into donors and recipients. While there are certainly many people in the developing world who don’t have adequate access to water, there are also many Americans in that situation, and he says we are ultimately all dependent on our global water supply to secure our future.

“Separating donors and recipients makes it easier for charities to drive interests and funds,” McGraw says. “We realize it’s much harder to ask someone to live in water poverty for 24 hours. But if I can fundamentally change the way you think about water, I’ve done my job even if I don’t make a dollar for the cause.”

In the second year of the challenge, which ends November 6, DIGDEEP slightly altered its approach after the Ice Bucket Challenge showed people were willing to use their social networks to help further a cause. Instead of asking participants to cut their water source for a week as they did last year, they cut it down to one day in the hopes of getting more people involved. The site devoted to the challenge——has a live feed with pictures of unwashed dishes and cordoned-off sink basins, reminding participants to not turn on the faucet. Like the Ice Bucket Challenge, interested parties can choose to donate money instead of radically reducing their water consumption for a day.

McGraw realizes that a 24-hour challenge is more demanding than a momentary rush of cold water, but he wants to emphasize the universality of the issue.

“Water is different from almost anything else—it’s even more basic than food. There’s a difference in the way people sleep or live in a house or what they eat,” McGraw said. “There’s no difference in what people need to drink.”