1

Imagine, there is a big fire in a house and someone is trying to extinguish it by pouring water from a coffee mug. This person has the right intention (the vector of his deeds points in the right direction -- stopping the fire), but insufficient (the vector length is too short compared to a fire -- too little water).

What do you call a situation like this in English?

In other languages there are following idioms I'm aware of:

  • Drops on a hot stone in German (Tropfen auf dem heissen Stein)
  • Drop in a sea in Russian (Капля в море)

Note that it's different from fixing a hopelessly broken process in that the process the person in question is doing is generally right (pouring water to kill a fire), but its intensity is insufficient.

3

A common idiom for this is drop in the bucket.

From The Free Dictionary:

drop in the bucket: a very small or unimportant amount; an insufficient or inconsequential amount in comparison with what is required.

From the OP's question:

"Imagine, there is a big fire in a house and someone is trying to extinguish it by pouring water from a coffee mug. This person has the right intention (the vector of his deeds points in the right direction -- stopping the fire), but insufficient (the vector length is too short compared to a fire -- too little water)" -- the water from the coffee mug is a drop in the bucket.

Drop in the bucket bears obvious similarities to:

  • Drops on a hot stone in German (Tropfen auf dem heissen Stein)

  • Drop in a sea in Russian (Капля в море)

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    I would be careful, anyone outside of America is unlikely to understand you if you say a drop in the bucket. – BladorthinTheGrey Sep 13 '16 at 6:16
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    @BladorthinTheGrey are you sure? It's pretty visual. – Helmar Sep 13 '16 at 8:12
3

A drop in the ocean would be closest to your original question.

Drop in the ocean (British, American & Australian) also a drop in the bucket (American) A very small amount in comparison to the amount that is needed

A hundred thousand may seem a lot but it's a drop in the ocean compared to the millions that need to be spent.

Personally, I have never heard of a drop in the bucket - probably since I live in the UK - so if you want to be understood in the UK (or it seems Australia) then a drop in the ocean is best.

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  • A number of non-American dictionaries I've checked indicate drop in the bucket is American or North American and drop in the ocean is British. Personally, I've never heard anyone in the U.S. say drop in the ocean, but if I did, I'm pretty sure I'd understand it. After all, an ocean is nothing more than a very large bucket. :-) – Richard Kayser Sep 13 '16 at 11:52
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pouring water from a coffee mug is a small step in the right direction..

A step in the right direction.

  an action that increases one's chances of achieving something. Exercise won't solve all your health problems, but it's a step in the right direction. - MW

Also from Wikipedia:.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"  is a common saying that originated from a famous Chinese proverb [...] ascribed to Laozi.

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    For the question, "a small step, though a step in the right direction" would convey the idea pretty well. – The Nate Sep 13 '16 at 19:07

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