A Problem of Water

ImageWater. It’s something we rarely dwell on in the West. Oh, you may worry that you drank too much coffee and not enough water today. Or maybe you agonize over which brand of bottled water to buy. Maybe it’s the filter that you use; should I use a Brita or Pûr? You’re constantly chiding yourself to drink more water because it’s good for you.

For those in the developing world the situation is drastically different. Unless you live under a rock, you also know of the water crisis around the world. I first came face to face with this issue while living in Guinea. Living in a mud hut in a small village, I, of course, did not have running water. But there was a pump just across the street that always had water. I had a veritable army of children who would rush to get water for me for the price of a small piece of candy. The only time I didn’t have water was when I was feeling too overwhelmed to leave the comforts of my hut and search out an able-bodied child. While I always had pretty clean water in my village, the same was not true when I would travel. On long, 12-18 hour taxi rides across the country I would occasionally run out of the filtered water I’d brought and be forced to drink local well water in which ever village we stopped or, more often, broke down. It was a choice between definite dehydration or possible waterborne illness. I had to make this choice a couple times. Much of the world makes this choice daily. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, I did get waterborne illnesses on several occasions. Giardiasis was my favorite- a single-celled parasite that lives in the upper part of the gut and prevents food from being properly absorbed causing, in some cases, severe weight loss. The first time I had it I lost 15lbs in a month. Because of this experience with dirty water I became passionate about water issues around the world. I am a huge proponent of organizations like Living Water that dig wells in the developing world.

Clove Island is in a whole new ballpark from anything I’ve ever experienced. In the past two weeks I cannot count how many times I have heard from islanders that there is a problem with water. I will say right away that I don’t know why there is a problem with water; the underlying environmental or political issues that cause the issue, I have no basis for which to judge. I also cannot say how this issue affects everyone. I’m sure that in months I will look back at this post and be amazed by my naivety and lack of understanding but for now I only have my own experience of three weeks on the island with less than a week in my own home to go from.

But imagine with me. You have just moved into your American (or Western) house. It has a kitchen with tile counters and a sink. You have a bathroom with a toilet, sink and shower area. All the plumbing is installed and you’re ready to begin your life in this new home. But you discover that all this beautiful plumbing is for naught because you have no running water. The cistern that is supposed to supply you with water is empty. What to do?

Imagine that, if you can, and you may have some idea of what it’s been like in our island home. Why do we need water in our homes? For bathing, washing hands, cleaning dishes, cooking, washing clothes, mopping the floor, flushing the toilet, etc. It’s amazing how much water two people can use even when they are careful not to waste.

Abby and I have three large plastic barrels; two were filled with water when we first arrived. We had used over half of the water by the second day. Without prompting, our neighbors/owners of the house brought us more water in jerry cans the next day. I did not question where this water came from or if any trouble had gone into getting it. I really didn’t think about it at all. Of course we had more water.

The next day we left for our homestays in a town nearby. We were told this town had a problem with water too. On the first morning of our stay, Abby and I trekked down to the beach with one of our hosts to draw water from a fresh water spring that came right out of the sand! Each morning one of the four sisters living in the house took a wheelbarrow full of jerry cans in search of water. She didn’t always go to the beach. Rumors of where water could be found that morning floated around; sometimes it was at the house down the street, sometimes over this way or that. The contrast was jarring for me. This family had several television sets, a computer and a freezer. Yet, they are forced to scavenge for water each and every day.

Upon our return from a week with a homestay family, we were pretty low on water. I had several conversations with the teenage girl downstairs, mostly in the local language with a few French words thrown in. It went kind of like this:

 

Me (in local language): Hi. I need water.

Her (local language): OK.

Me (French/local language): Do you have water?

Her (local language): Yes.

Me (local language): I want water.

Her (local language): OK.

 

I walked up the stairs to my home expecting her to follow with a jerry can or two. But she turned around and went right back to cooking. I’m not quite sure where the miscommunication took place but we never did get any more water from her. So what would you do if all the sudden the water stopped running in your house and you didn’t know when you’d get more? I decided to conserve.

Conservation is such a buzzword in the US. And many aspire to conserve water. Even Barney has a song about not letting the water run when you brush your teeth. But conservation takes on a new meaning when that barrel of water may be your last for the foreseeable future. Two days ago we began our conservation efforts. At 5AM when I heard the rain, I jumped out of bed and rushed several buckets to the roof to collect the rain. Water in the basin after cleaning clothes- that now goes in an empty barrel. Water in the sink after washing dishes- yep, that goes in the barrel too. All of that dirty water then gets used to flush our toilet. Voilà!

Tom, one of our team leaders, has been really on top of our water problem. Everyday he would call to see how much water we had. Yesterday after my conversation with the neighbor girl, he had a water truck come to our house to put water into our cistern for a fair price. It’s not quite half full. We shall see how long that lasts. So the conservation efforts continue.

Water is a problem. But it’s a problem that we share with our neighbors and for that I am thankful. I can go to the local shops and commiserate with the shop owners about the water problem. We all nod knowingly. Ah yes, water is a problem but it is a communal problem and therefore a bonding problem.

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