At our house in Charagua, Bolivia we receive water from a community water system. It’s very common for our water to be off for an hour or two. When we first moved in our water was off every day from mid-morning to late afternoon, about 6 hours. For the past four weeks though our water has been pretty consistent, only turning for an hour or two at most. Sunday, April 3, however, before getting almost four inches of rain overnight our water turned off as we went to sleep. We woke up to faucets that happily turned, but refused to spit anything out.
Now, we have a bucket system to help mitigate the inconsistency of our water supply; two buckets for dishes and three for laundry and toilet flushing. Even though we had become somewhat lax in keeping all of these buckets filled, most of them had water in them and rain had accumulated in a larger bucket sitting outside. None of this water is intended to be used for drinking water. Sometimes after a rain the water can be somewhat turbid, having suspended solids and sediment. That’s not too bad for washing dishes or laundry, but not so nice when your glass of water has a slight brown tint.
So, this was our first whole day without water. After realizing that there was no drinking water, my stomach sank when I realized that this meant there would be no coffee. Unfortunately, this happened on a Sunday and many of the local shops were closed. Fortunately, there were still some open and they had bottled water we could buy. By the time we got the bottled water and made coffee, it was later in the morning and I was already cranky.
It turned out to be a nice day; So, I thought I should get some work done clearing the field next to our house by hand with a scythe. This meant getting hot and sweaty, thirsty and dirty. Not a big deal if drinking and shower water is abundant, but kind of discouraging when there isn’t a nice shower and tall glass of water at the end of your work. Even though I had coffee by this time, the lack of water definitely affected my mood. Cleaning up after meals was also more difficult. We couldn’t just turn on the faucet if our dish water got dirty. I found myself spending a lot of time just trying to plan out how best to use the water that we had before we used it all up. This also tended to make me more frustrated and cranky, because this extra effort was more than I was used to.
This experience really made me think a lot more about the other people in our community and how they made it through these days. Relying on bottled water is very expensive and may have been beyond the ability of some of our neighbors. Perhaps they did without drinking water that day or maybe they drank water that we were unwilling to drink. One of the communities we work with, Caipepe, has a water system for part of the community, but the rest fill up buckets for their daily household use.
It also made me think about water usage and problems around the world. I don’t have lots of current statistics at my fingertips, but you can find them easy enough if you’re reading this. This is a reality that many people live with every day, but finally hit home when experienced it first hand.
We talked to a number of different people who told us that the pipes had become clogged with mud from the rain and they were working to fix the problem, but nobody knew when we would have water again. Then, as we settled down for the evening to watch Made in America starring Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Dansen in Spanish, it began to rain again. This time I saw the rain as more than a nuisance, keeping us inside, making the dirt roads muddy or breaking our water system. This time I realized that what was pouring out of the skies was a gift, not just for the plants, but for us as well. If we couldn’t get water out of the faucet, then this was our chance.
So, I set up one of our large tubs under the spout that collects rain from a small 5 or 6 foot section of our roof and set out the rest of our empty buckets and tubs to collect from the skies or other parts of the roof. It was incredible to see how fast they filled up. Then I grabbed the 55 gallon drum that usually sits in the yard by our hose and put it under the spout. It too filled up in about an hour. I began to dream of a real rainwater collection system that could really harvest all the delicious water falling from the heavens. It turned out the water would be off for two more days and was a lovely brown color when it came back on. Luckily we had a little bit more rain to fill our tubs, barrels and buckets.
The Bolivian Chaco, where we live, has a short rainy season and a long dry season. The dry season lasts for most of the year. This would make depending purely on a rainwater system for our water difficult for long stretches. Nevertheless, it would go a long way toward making our water supply more consistent and available. It would also make use of a free resource that is abundant during parts of the year. If we had a large cistern that could store larger amounts of rainwater, we might be able to get through most of the dry season. I can dream anyway.