It occurred to me, about three weeks ago, just how much humans collectively rely on water. I am not just referring to it as a life-blood, but as a means to function on a day-to-day basis. Here I was, my second weekend at site, and about mid-day on Sunday water no longer flowed from my spigot. It turns out that Rwanda had received some exceptionally heavy rainfall that caused landslides in the north, flooding around the capital. As a precaution to prevent sediment buildup, many people had their water turned off.
Apparently, this is no big deal here. I mentioned it to my counterpart and colleagues and was met with a shrug that said, “This happens here all the time, no problem.” So I thought nothing of it, proceeded to pick up a 20L jug from the market and was prepared for another day of no water – this has to be a sufficient amount, right?
So now it was three days later and there was still no water. Full disclosure, I had not showered or bathed since the previous Friday…and obviously my clothes had not been washed either. At this point, I start to think “OK, I have X amount of water left for who knows how long? Sure, I can buy some more, but that will start to get expensive if this is prolonged. So what do I really need to do?” It was at that point that I began to write down everything that required water during my day:
- Brush teeth
- Personal consumption
- Wash hands
- Wash clothes
- Wash dishes
- Flush the toilet
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think I captured the majority of simple daily tasks that all of a sudden I needed to prioritize. I needed to be thinking ahead of how much water I was going to use. By Thursday, I was making food choices based off whether or not I could re-use the water from a previous meal for cooking purposes – for instance, the pasta water from lunch was just used to cook pasta again for dinner. I was literally down to my last few liters before I would have to go purchase another 20. Thankfully, that evening my water came back on. So I was without running water for five days.
However, now the reality had hit. What would I have done back in the United States had my water turned off? I would have complained, made some phone calls, eaten out, showered at a friend’s house, picked up a few bottles or water to get me through the night, kept the toilet seat down, etc. Every morning here in Rwanda, I pass people on their way to fill up a 10-15L jerrycan. They sometimes have to do this multiple times a day. It is just NOT that simple here to simply turn on the faucet or let the water run so and wait until it turns cold/hot enough. Think about it – what if, all of a sudden, you viewed water as a commodity instead of the luxury item it really is?
According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme from 2015, there are 663 million people without access to clean water – that is twice the population of the United States. In addition, 2.4 billion do not even have access to a toilet (more people have mobile phones than clean toilet access). The organization that I am working with here in Rwanda (CORFORWA) hopes to decrease this number, no matter the increment. One way is to provide trainings to teach people how to install accessible infrastructure in their communities. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a graduation ceremony for students who had just completed a six-week course on new plumbing techniques.
The students learned how to install a rainwater collection bin, attach piping and run it underground, as well as how to properly attach it to bathtubs, toilets, showers, and sinks in order to use indoors. This is a huge deal in a rural community where having running water indoors is rare luxury item. These students now have the skills that allow them to not only have a positive impact on their community from an overall public health perspective, but to be a Master Craftsperson able to provide for themselves and their families – everybody wins.
Think about this for a second:
Every morning, you have to walk 1-3km to your water source just to fill up a jerrycan with 10L of water – approximately 2.5 gallons – for your daily use. The water has not been purified and needs to be boiled or treated before consumption. What you would do if, all of a sudden, you had a finite amount of water to use in a day – how would you prioritize? What would be the first thing you would sacrifice and what would be an absolute necessity? Are there behavior changes you would make in order to make your limited supply last?
So for those who brush their teeth and leave the water running, toss out a glass of water simply because it was left out overnight, or take a 15 minute shower, just be aware there are close to 700 million people in this world who have no idea what that is like.
Now I am no saint – I am definitely guilty of wasting water. However, the next time my water shuts off, I’ll be ready.