I don’t think there exists a place on earth anymore where people don’t talk about water. In Utah we have always watched the snow cover in the mountains as a predictor of how much water we would have the next year. In Flint, Michigan an entire town has been living with poisoned drinking water for the past 3 years. The biggest concern after a natural disaster is always how to get drinking water to the people. We hear how water gets polluted by oil spills from pipelines, off-shore drilling, vacation cruise lines, and plastic residue. Some of us have been implementing water saving measures in our homes such as putting bricks or bottles in our flush toilets as to not use too much water that way. We have changed our grassy front lawn to a rock design, we use drip systems, don’t wash our cars in the drive way, use showers instead of baths. We have been watching the progression of the melting of glaciers and ice caps. Some of us worry so much that we have to pretend things will be ok just to not go crazy. We think about water. I have been thinking about water. But until now I have never had the complete first-hand experience with what it means to not have enough water.
As you might remember from one of my earlier posts, when I first arrived in Malawi I stayed in a “training village” where I learned about everything necessary to survive in a Malawian village. One of the things was to draw water from a well, pump water from a borehole and transport the bucket of 5 gallons (which weighs about 40 pounds) on my head to our homestead.
My first site in the South had a water tap right outside my little hut and even though the pump sometimes went out, I still had water conveniently close. It was still an extra effort to wash laundry, carry everything in buckets, but it was very close. I never worried.
Now, living in Nkhata Bay, I have a nice house, but no water or electricity. It is interesting that I always assumed that not having electricity or internet would be the most challenging part of my life. And don’t get me wrong, it IS challenging, but having a water source that is 1 km away from the house is the real hardship. I am not complaining, because in some parts of Malawi or Africa women have to walk even further to fetch water, but it is such an eye-opener to me that I would like to share my experiences.
So, how do I live without running water? First of all, and I am counting right now, I have two large plastic basins, three 5 liter buckets, two 10 liter buckets, one 15 liter bucket, five 20 liter buckets, one 4 liter bucket, and two 60 liter buckets with lids to fetch and store my water. I feel safe when all of the vessels are filled to the brim.
How much water do I need per day (and remember, I am only one person, things multiply when you have a family!)? On a regular day, I need water for drinking, cooking and to take a sponge bath. This is approximately 6 gallons or 24 liters. Sometimes I have to do laundry and mop the house or wash my hair and my use goes up to about 4 buckets to 60 liters (or 20 gallons).
What does it take for me to be able to use 20 gallons? On laundry day I have to walk to the bore hole 4 times, 4 km with an empty bucket and 4km with 20 liters on my head. Or I can take my dirty laundry to the borehole and wash it there and carry that back on my head. But I still need drinking water. How much time does it take? As a general rule, people walk 1 km in about 10 min. If no one is at the borehole, it takes me about 30 min per bucket (walking and filling it), 2 hours altogether. But the borehole is a place for socializing. Many women and children gather there to chat while pumping water or doing laundry. That means that one usually has to wait in line to pump water. If I carry my water on laundry day, it can take me up to 4-5 hours.
As an average I use 6-8 gallons a day. It would be a good guess that this is the average use per head in Malawi, maybe even across all countries that still have this kind of water access. The average use of water in the US is 80-100 gallon per person per day. To carry 100 gallons from the borehole to the house, I would have to carry 50 buckets a day, spending about 33.3 hours doing so, and that is more hours than one day has! And that is just for one person.
Needless to say, I am somewhat obsessed with water. I always know how much water I have. I take an empty bucket to work because this is where the borehole is. I plan my Sunday according to where I possibly could fill my water bottle with filtered drinking water that I don’t have to boil or filter (some lodges for tourists have filtered water).
It is safe to say that the village life for women and children centers around fetching water. Wherever you go you either see people carrying water on their heads, pumping water, sitting around a water source chatting, cleaning buckets etc. One of the nicest things my neighbors ever did for me was bringing a bucket of fresh water to my house late at night after I returned from a long trip. I had not asked for it. But village people know that water is the most important thing you need when returning to your house.
In a traditional family, women and children carry the water. Men sometimes carry water for plants in watering cans or they will strap containers to their bikes. They usually do not carry water on their heads even though they know how, being raised carrying water as a child.
I sometimes I have students (girls) from my school bring water for me. Lately my small neighborhood children insist on fetching water. They carry smaller buckets, the very little ones (3yrs old) carry cooking pots with water. But nobody walks to or leaves the proximity of a borehole without carrying at least some.
During rainy season we “harvest” water from the roofs. You can find rows of buckets underneath metal roofs all over the village. I learned very quickly. I have been jumping out of bed at 2am running into a full blown rainstorm setting up all my empty buckets on numerous occasions…Now I even leave my basins in place when I leave town just in case it does rain.
Village people are very protective of their water. They never leave buckets outside. They don’t consider it safe even if covered. And it makes sense. Water is so precious that they worry that ill-meaning folks could easily poison a bucket or animals could contaminate it. Many diseases or even death come from bad water. Water needs to be protected.
What have I learned from living with no running water? I will never take (clean) water for granted any longer. I plan my water use. If I do laundry, I use the grey water for mopping my house. I also use bath water to water my plants. I know exactly which bucket has the latest, freshest water. I spend many hours boiling and filtering drinking water, because it is easy to get dehydrated if you have to work for every drop (sometimes one has to choose between dehydration or diarrhea).
Last week I noticed women in my immediate neighborhood carrying up to 6 bricks on their heads contributing to the construction of a new borehole. I was very excited to find out that there are plans to drill one very close to my house, only 150 meters away. I take part in the women’s excitement and joyful expectation. 150m compared to 1000m. This will be an improvement of life and living conditions for many, including myself.
There is a saying in Malawi: “Madzi ndi moyo” or “Water is life”. Poisoning water is an offense that gets punished severely. We cannot drink water with oil residue or radioactive water. It is a crime against humanity to pollute any water source no matter where because water doesn’t know borders. If Mozambique dumps trash into lake Malawi, Malawians and Tanzanians are effected as well.
Thank you for reading.