I live in a water-scarce country on a water-scarce continent. I grew up with a little ditty, “Kinders moenie in die water mors nie, die ou mense wil dit drink” – “Children, don’t mess with water, the old people want to drink it”. Parts of my country has had water restrictions in the years that I have lived.
And yet, I have never really wanted for water. When I open a tap, there it is. Cold and ready to drink, albeit chlorinated. Cape Town has some of the cleanest drinking water in the world. I could run through sprinklers as a child. I could swim in swimming pools.
When I attended the International Rotary Youth Leadership Awards in Montreal 2010, we went a day without water, and made WAPIs to send to real families in need – easily made “water pasteurisation indicators” that basically indicate when water has reached an appropriate temperature to be safe for consumption.
The first time I wanted for water was when I traveled to China in 2011. One of our warnings from the Confucius Institute was never to drink water from the taps in China, never to take ice with any drinks, and always to ensure that drinks and water bottles purchased were sealed. Oh, and to be careful of eating uncooked fruits and veg that may have been rinsed with tap water.
It was September in Hunan Province and to me, it was quite hot. And humid. We got thirsty quite quickly. On our first day in the country, at the Guangzhou train station on our way to Hunan, we were dying for some water. We didn’t even have currency yet. Our wonderful guide bought us some water… and to our consternation, the water wasn’t cold. We learned that cold water was not considered to be beneficial to one’s qi. But at least it was clean.
Traveling with Semester at Sea again made me appreciate water again. There was water everywhere! But I couldn’t swim in it (lest I wished to drown or freeze) and I certainly couldn’t drink it. The ship’s drinking water was drinkable, but tasted quite awful. Something in the chlorination or desalination made it wholly unpalatable. I found myself drinking juice and cordials just to get some fluid intake.
We visited countries where water could not be drunk. China, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Ghana, Morocco. When I took overnight trips, I had to brush my teeth with precious bottled water. And although bottled water was readily available in all these places, I longed for the fresh sensation of water from the faucet. Just knowing that the bottle in your backpack is the only water you have left, makes you feel perpetually thirsty and famished – even though you know you can buy more.
Sometimes we cheated. We had a smoothie in Vietnam despite the ice. We were okay. I started drinking water in Morocco and it was quite palatable. And I was okay. But not everyone was. Traveler’s Diarrhoea was reality for many.
One can’t pretend that traveling in these countries makes you experienced with water scarcity. It doesn’t: because locals may not have the money to buy clean water. The locals have to deal with it. They have to deal with the accompanying disease too.
During my rural rotation earlier this year, we did not have access to great drinking water. We made use of a rain water tank. The rain water sometimes had mosquito larvae in them… so I bought some water again. Then, in my final week there, the area had widespread water and power cuts. Power cuts I am used to in South Africa (thanks, Eskom); but water cuts… not so much. No water to shower in. No water to flush the loo!
When the water came back, it ran a thick brown mud for two more days. Needless to say I was glad to leave by the end of the week.
But I won’t forget not being able to do imaging investigations because of the power outage. I won’t forget not being able to wash my hands with soap and water between patients (alcohol rub had to do). I can’t forget that we were operating in a theatre without running water.
I’m not a water genius. I don’t know the solutions to the scarcity. I do know that it is more than “don’t waste water”. It is a matter of infrastructure that needs to be fixed and governments that need to be held accountable. And yes, an appropriate distribution of water.
Today is World Water Day.