Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reflections on Water - Past and Present

Our Lifeline for the past few weeks
At last - the water is back albeit at reduced pressure which means no showers, but let's be thankful for small mercies as dear old Ma used to say. And the joy of having water to wash, flush, run the dishwasher and washing machine and mop the manky floors knows no bounds!

I hadn't realised how much I'd taken water for granted till spending this Christmas without it - and surviving. It's been well over 20 years ago, when we were living in Burigi in Northwest Tanzania in the heart of the bush between Lake Victoria and Rwanda, with the two oldest and the third on the way, and we had no running water at all.  We lived on rainwater (in the rainy season of course) collected in drums and a specially built tank, and river water did for the dry season and our clothes washing. Nappies were always a darker shade of grey and everything was tinged with a sludge-coloured hue. We only realised this when we were back in Ireland and saw how technicolour everyone else was compared to our au naturel shade of safari gear.

The boys on driftwood at Bahari Beach Dar-es-Salaam - looking out to Zanzibar-1994
Yes, those were the days - and we were loving it! Must have been the vigour of youth that kept us going, and the fact that we were totally thrown back on our own resourcefulness to get by. We were very stoic and nothing fazed us, even the dreaded malaria which landed hubby in our local mission hospital on a few occasions. We had to boil and filter all our drinking water, as it was very muddy from the river and the chalk filters had to be cleaned almost daily. So we certainly didn't take water for granted- and as we had a pit latrine which didn't require flushing we had no worries on that score. Not as awful as it might sound, these pit loos are a terrific solution for any area of water shortage and are a lot more environmentally friendly - as long as they're not leaching into any water supply.

I have some terrific pics of the boys at bathtime outside our house, as all ablutions took place in a makeshift shower hut, with bucket showers. They are sitting in a yellow plastic tub in the sunshine, and as happy as sandboys. I don't think they were overly traumatised by the lack of mod cons, as they knew no different, having been born and reared in the bush. But we often longed for a decent shower and a highlight of our time there was trips to the Dutch doctors in Rubya Hospital in Muleba where we could chill out and shower at length safe in the knowledge they had plenty of water and a hydroelectric plant in the making from the abundant waterfalls in that elevated region.

We had friends in Bukoba town and visiting there meant a surfeit of water, and an illicit swim in Lake Victoria which was out of bounds as far as the tropical docs in Ireland were concerned. This was due to the risks of contracting Bilharzia or Schistosomiasis, which was transmitted via the snails that lived in the water and were vectors of the disease. We occasionally took a chance, hoping that our years in the bush had given us an acquired immunity from all kinds of parasites, as the missionaries and other expats took a laid-back approach to it all.

I guess everything is relative and compared to the refugees we were living amongst and working with, our lives were very comfortable and we had that option they never had - a sanctuary back in Europe if the going got tough and security inadequate. So perspective certainly kept us going as a coping strategy - no matter how rough we thought things were, they were never as rough as the lives and experiences of the Rwandan Tutsi refugees - who are now back in their own country after a lifetime of exile in Uganda and then Tanzania. But that's a story for another day.

We were always used to boiling water abroad, as the only place we ever drank tap water was in Zanzibar, where the aquifers are deep enough to be clean. In Bangladesh water is potentially lethal as the tubewell water is naturally tainted with arsenic, This was not known in our day there 30 years ago, but has since come to light. It's particularly ironic in a country that has such a love-hate relationship with water that this should happen - after all, the Cholera hospital in Dhaka invented the Oral Rehydration solution that we're so familiar with in the West now.

We are looking down the barrel of water metering in Ireland with inevitable charges - hubby is amazed that we have free water here when every other European country seems to be charging for it - but our attitude seems to be why should we have to pay when we have an over-abundance of rain in this damp climate. I guess it's all down to the cost of treatment, which is a luxury we do take for granted, especially when the boil notices appear and ghastly things like Cryptosporidium turn up in Galway and are traced back to the water source. I hope that our mega-leaking ancient pipes here will be given priority for repairs as there seems to be as many litres leaking away per hour as we owe the IMF in Euro in the coming few years.


Padraic Murray said...

I enjoyed this post immensely, Catherine. As usual you mix the local with the universal, the current with the timeless effortlessly and with effect. May I wish you and your family a goldilocks New Year, not too hot, not too cold, not too much water and not too little! P

Barbara said...

An update from Tanzania on water supplies: although I am in one of the bigger cities, and living in the bush is probably still the same as you describe it. In Arusha, with about 200,000 population, the city has a water system and supplies household water, not treated for drinking. But they run out of water pretty often, and implement rolling water outages around different parts of town. We're on the second round of running out of water. Everybody copes though, either by hauling jerry cans of water from a friends' place or buying it from someone in another neighborhood. Or, if you have a good water tank at your house and enough cash up front, hiring a tanker truck to come and fill your house water tank with water. The jerry cans are a hassle, but if you can get the truck, everything seems like normal for a few weeks! None of it as difficult as life in the bush that you describe!

Lily said...

Catherine, great reflections on water.

I remember being in awe of a simple shower, what a luxury it was, while traveling through india many years ago. I have never forgotten the feeling.

Listening to the radio this morning, it seems the cold weather may be set to return mid January (according to the Donegal postman who apparently has accurately forecast the weather before by watching animal movements) :(

Rita said...

Lovely post and makes os think twice about so much that we take for granted. Wishing you a safe and healthy 2011.

Stephanie V said...

Wonderful post, Catherine. We, too, have a generous helping of water from the sky as does everyone on the west coast of Canada. It seems odd to ever ration it but we do in the summer. And there are places on our islands that have regular water shortages and summer is much like the bush life you describe. In parts of Alaska, every house has a huge cistern (of a matching size) to provide enough water.

Pooch Purple Reign said...

wow! what an interesting story...and great comments too!
all the best for a great new year!

Catherine said...

Thanks for all your kind comments - I love to get them!
Padraic, I like the Goldilocks analogy - good wishes to you too, the water issues abroad would be a recurring theme for any development worker who lived at the mercy of the wet and dry seasons and relied heavily on nature's bounty or lack thereof! Bangladesh for all its water was a paradox as water could mean life or death for so many.

Barbara - that sounds like a good solution to have the rolling rationing, at least in the bush we never had to cope with sudden outages as there was always a shortage risk. We always were careful and it was worse in the city as there was no contingency backup like rivers or handpumps like we had access to in the villages or refugee camps/settlements we lived in. Will be in touch with the guest post soon!

Lily - I think India is the ultimate challenge as they seem to have invented the ingenuity of the bucket and cup bath! Certainly made an impression on me when I visited Calcutta for the first time and saw people washing at standpipes in the streets where they lived. Pretty grim, nothing City of Joy about it. I love India though and would love to spend another few months traipsing around on the trains, buses and boats! I would put store by the Donegal postman even though Met Eireann diss him!

Rita - yes we shouldn't take water for granted any more - our problems won't go away as it turns out the pipes are all laid too close to the surface as no-one anticipated this kind of cold temps and councils could have major work to do to repair mains pipes and leaking burst ones.

Stephanie - seems rainfall amount has no bearing on what comes out of the taps! Amazing about the Alaskan cisterns - never heard of that but in Africa we had big storage tanks in the bush, concrete or corrugated iron - galvanised to minimise rusting. And we will have to get used to outages as the weather seems set to be colder.

Laura - glad you enjoyed the post - it was just a ramble through my thoughts on water and various experiences of it. Happy new year to you too, keep on visiting in 2011!

All the best and happy 2011 to all of you and yours!