<img class="alignleft" style="border: 1px solid black;" src="http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3160/2403803040_156f7f2af4_m.jpg" alt="Water, as we all know, is critical to almost all forms of life. Previously, I noted what my life was like in rural Bolivia, where there was no potable water system, and the community where I lived, myself included, was forced to get all of its water from a nearby irrigation canal. Water itself is critical to life, and for human beings potable water is critical to a healthy and dignified life.
Around the world, there exist cultural systems for the acquisition and use of water. It is certainly the case that many of these systems do not provide clean water to their communities, but nonetheless they enable us to access the vital liquid that is critical for our survival as a species. When these systems start to break down, things get ugly.
These last few weeks, I have realized how fragile our existence truly is. SEMAPA, the municipal water division for the city of Cochabamba Bolivia, has been busily replacing the asbestos water pipes buried in the street in front of our house. As can be noted in the photo above, the street was ripped open, and has remained that way for several weeks. As an aside, upon removing the asbestos pipes from the ground, they are left to deteroriate in the street, right in front of a local school, I might add.
First, they ripped the street up. Then, the water in our pipes was turbid and dirty, so our landlord starting pumping from a small well in our apartment compound. The well water lasted for a few days, but when the well dried we realized that SEMAPA, without prior notice, had cut off our supply to the municipal system. By then, the four families in our complex were out of water, all we had left was what we were able to store in barrels and buckets in our homes.
An abrupt and unexpected interruption of the water supply sends a jolt through an entire household. Children become more vulnerable to sickness and dehydration, personal and household hygiene takes an immediate hit, and desperation sets in fairly quickly, sometimes within a matter of hours.
One of the first things I noticed was the complete ineffectiveness of our traditional, flush toilet. It is an absolute monster consumer when it comes to water; the simple act of urinating requires enough drinking water, at the very least, to quench our thirst for several days. As we tried to conserve and limit our flushing, a hideous odor began to emanate from the bathroom. I quickly realized that the flush toilet is an archaic and anachronistic technology, from an age when water was still abundant and cheap. It may seem absurd, but it is not far fetched to believe that the flush toilet, in its current form, will no longer exist 30 or 40 years from now.
After our first 36 hours or so without water, the taps began to flow again, and at 5:30 in the morning our entire apartment complex came to life: buckets being filled, dishes and bodies being washed, dirty clothes being soaked, and the sound of kettles whistling for morning tea or coffee. Most of us were not prepared to last much longer than 36 hours; in our own household, there was already talk of temporarily staying in a hotel, or bringing buckets of water to the house from a neighbor several blocks away.
After reconnecting our block to the water supply, sadly and predictably, SEMAPA left the gaping hole in the street wide open to the elements. Already, a car had fallen in several days before. Two days ago, I woke to the sound of gushing water. I looked out the window, and sure enough, the water main had busted, and the entire trench and street were filled with muddy water. Once again, our water supply was cut off, once again the SEMAPA workers came to fix it, and once again they left a gaping hole in the street.
As I write this, several SEMAPA workers are milling around in the street a block away, where there is another gaping trench in the asphalt. Mind you, this is two, almost three weeks since the street was first cut and dug. It is true, Bechtel’s water price hikes that led to the now famous Water War of April 2000 were a provocative and perhaps unconscionable act; equally so is SEMAPA’s utter lack of regard for efficiency and human dignity in their management of the city’s water supply. It may well be that privatization was not the answer to Cochabamba’s worsening water crisis, but events over the last few weeks have left me disillusioned with public management as well. The rock and hard place seem to be squeezing closer together, with the average citizen stuck impotently between the two.
In Part I of My Life Without Water, I noted that traditional systems, though often times substandard, allow for the acquisition of water in communities throughout the world. Though I lived in a community without potable water, these traditional systems are what kept us alive. In Part II, I have given a personal glimpse of what life looks like, even for the briefest period of time, when these systems start to break down. In our case, we hope that the break down, a result of inefficient water management, will only be temporary. In other cases, those of deforestation, climate change, desertification, population growth, etc., the break down may not be so temporary, and the consequences much more drastic.
I hope I will never have to write Part III of My Life Without Water, because naturally and logically, it would detail a complete and total break down of my means for acquiring water. But, I am quite sure that as I write this, and as you are reading this, somebody is already experiencing Part III of this story, and many more people the world over are on the verge of their own version of Part III.