As Glaciers melt our water supplies are being affected
Swiss glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate, some losing six per cent of their remaining volume in one year and far exceeding previous records. As a heatwave hits the Alps we look at the water shortage that is now affecting mountain huts.
Water is not a never ending resource and in the mountains the effect of a changing climate is being felt. We know that the rising temperatures are showing their effects in many parts of the world, but first and foremost in the glaciated mountain regions of the world. The glaciers are melting, the winters are warmer and bringing less snow every year and, as a consequence, the water supplies run low. Mountain huts rely on snow for their water, so if there’s not enough snow in the winter then running the huts in the summer is difficult. How are they going to cope with this situation? Will they be able to survive?
The importance of water in a mountain hut
Similarly to everyday life at home, water is fundamental for the running of a mountain hut. It is used mainly for the toilets and the kitchen, but also for the showers (when available), outside toilets and for cleaning. Some huts also use water to produce energy and electricity through a turbine, and for the huts that rely on these turbines the lack of water can be an even more serious problem.
In any case, one thing is certain: huts would not be able to run without water and the conditions of the last few years have made things very complicated with a number of high mountain huts having to close much earlier in the season than they would like to.
Glaciers feed dams and lakes across Europe
What happens if there’s no water?
During the last two summer seasons a number of huts, throughout the Alps, have experienced different levels of water shortage. In a bid to deal with this situation they had to close down non-essential services, such as showers and toilets located outside the main building, which are for hikers visiting during the day. We’ve seen this on the Tour du Mont Blanc both last year and this year, as well as in the Italian Dolomites. Such decisions have not always been welcomed by hikers but, however hard they may have been to take, they have been necessary in order to save as much water as possible, and to avoid having to close the hut completely.
How do huts cope with these problems?
Is there much a hut guardian can do to cope with this difficult situation, apart from coming up with quick and temporary solutions? Last year we’ve seen huts getting their water delivered by helicopter. Not the most practical solution, and by no means the cheapest, and clearly not environmentally friendly. Some others had to move their water pipes half way through the season to draw water from a new source as the original source went dry. Others again managed to redirect the waste water from the sinks and dishwasher to the toilets, so that the same water could be used twice. A whole lot of different solutions that meant they could stay open and offer their services almost as usual, but temporary solutions nonetheless. At the Refuge de la Croix de Bonhomme, on the Tour du Mont Blanc, the hut guardian will be quick to ask you to "Take care with the water, we are running out."
What is going to happen in the future?
This situation is likely to present itself more frequently in the future, so hut guardians have already been thinking of how they could operate in the next few seasons. Some ideas are to instal dry toilets, thereby eliminating the need for water to flush, and installing tanks to collect rain water, or to use composting plates and cutlery to reduce the use of the dishwasher. Some of these solutions may not seem 100% sustainable, but they would allow the huts to remain open and provide their main service, which is to offer a shelter, a roof over the head and a bowl of hot soup to those people that choose to spend time in the mountains, especially in case of emergency.
This situation clearly shows how our presence in the mountains always has an impact. As much as we try to keep our mountains as they are, we will always leave a trace. What we can do, however, is to make sure that trace is as small as it can be. But how?
Mountain huts are usually perched on high ground with limited water supplies
Educate and share
The strongest weapon we have to fight the water shortage is knowledge. How can we make sure that those of us who go to the mountains, alpinists, hikers and tourists, know of this and can contribute to a responsible use of water in the high places?
First of all, let’s talk about numbers. Do we know how much water we use in a day? Just to have an idea, for a three minutes shower we use approximately thirty litres of water, and every time we flush a toilet we use around six litres. This alone should make us rethink our water usage at home, and even more in the mountains where water depends entirely on the supply to water tanks and the flow of water available from natural springs.
The number of people who venture into the mountains has increased in the last few years, especially after the pandemic, and quite often the expectations of these new mountain tourists have also increased. Showers in the huts have become a must, same as private rooms instead of dorms. In other words, some people expect a mountain hut to be the same as a hotel and to provide the same services, but this is not possible. It is therefore very important for those who choose to go into the mountains and use the huts to be aware of the differences and problems, so that they can help preserve the environment they visit. It is absolutely necessary at this point in history to raise people’s awareness and to make sacrifices.
The Rifugio Nuvolau sits on a rocky spur high in the Italian Dolomites where water is a precious commodity
The importance of awareness
Mountain huts, guides and all those people who live and work in the mountains are probably the first who should try to teach this to their customers, but how? Quite a lot of people are already aware of the problem, and do pay attention to how much water they use. But not everybody, and especially not those who are new to the mountain environment, simply because of lack of experience and understanding. Talking about it is important, for sure, but sometimes not enough, as it can be very hard to change people’s ways. On long distance treks, for instance, people will want to have a shower as they’ve been on the go for multiple days. Or again, they won’t bring with them many clothes to keep the weight of their rucksack down and will rely on washing them every night. How can we explain to them that if everybody did that every day then the huts might not be able to serve them dinner for lack of water?
This is something I often find myself thinking about when I’m guiding groups in the Alps, especially on the most popular and crowded routes. After a long day in the mountains it’s nice to have a shower, but not fundamental. I often think that maybe the best way to teach my groups to save water is to not have a shower myself. If the guide does it, then so can they. Or again, I always tell my groups to wash their clothes only when we stay down in the valley overnight, and not in the huts. It requires a sacrifice, of course, but I believe it’s a small and affordable one. This is my small contribution, but is it enough?
In conclusion, it is important that people learn that life in a mountain hut is not the same as life in the valley, and that not all mountain huts are the same. Every single one will have different resources, and therefore will offer different services. The beauty and uniqueness of mountain huts also depend on these differences and on the simplicity of these places. And it’s important not to forget their main function, which is to provide a shelter as well as information on the paths and mountain conditions, weather forecasts and itineraries. They play a fundamental role in terms of safety in the mountains and in emergency situations, everything else is luxury. Let’s try to remember this, and work together to use these places in a conscious way that helps preserve their future allowing us to continue to access these beautiful places.