October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day: Water

women carrying water for cooking and cleaningEvery day housewife work: transporting heavy buckets of water
from the nearest river

Thanks to Laurie at Honduras Gumbo, I was reminded that today is the annual Blog Action Day. This year's topic is water. How could I have forgotten, coming from my own ordeal of 23 days without any running water?

Water is a basic human right to which those in developed countries don't usually give a thought. Why should they? It's there. It's mostly clean. It's like the air that we breathe. When we want to flush the toilet, we do. When we want to wash our hands or the food that we will eat, we do. If we even want to be so bold as to get a drink straight out of the faucet, we can do that, too!

Living in a third world country puts a whole different slant on the subject of water. Our attention is focused a lot more often on water. Where did it come from? Is it clean? Is it purified? What is the ice made from? Can I flush the toilet? When will the water be turned off or turned back on? When is the water delivery man coming? Was this food washed in purified water before it was served? And conversely, will my house or my crops or my church be flooded?

All that and much more, even though we are, by average Honduran standards, relatively well off and live in a colonia that generally has water 24/7. We can afford purified water. We have a car and can go get water, purified and otherwise, when we need it. It wasn't until I started searching for photos for this article that I realized how frequently water has been a topic of this blog.

Washing clothes in the riverImagine the poor, who have no access to running water ever? Or those who can't afford a water holding tank or the (approximately) US $1 that a 5-gallon jug of purified water costs. Or the slightly better off who may have a faucet inside or outside their house, but who have no control over the filthy water that may come through it.
(Photo: Wash day at the river.)

Imagine those who have to choose between not bathing their child, or bathing him in water that will cause serious skin infections. Imagine those who store their water in uncovered buckets or
pilas (concrete washing tubs, usually outdoors), even though they know this will attract mosquitoes which can result in being exposed to malaria or dengue.

Guns, crime, violence, terrorism, war are all fearsome topics across the world. But the 'weapon' that causes the most harm in the world is that (usually) clear and (usually) benign liquid we call water. From the Change.org website:
“Unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation cause 80% of diseases and kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war.”
Boy saving his dog, La Ceiba, HondurasNot many people in Honduras are unaffected by water. At best, providing clean, reliable water has been and continues to be a big expense for their household. For the middle class, life with water rationing and less than good water quality is a way of life. Most common for the poor is a complete lack of running water of any quality.
(Photo: boy saving his dog from the flooding waters)

A couple of years ago, I did a lot of research on water and water associations in connection with my neighborhood patronato, but unfortunately, it is all locked up in a computer that I can't access. Most of it was from studies done in Honduras. Though I can't link to the studies, a few facts stuck in my mind:

black water from the faucet1. No municipal or government provided water in Honduras is completely and consistently safe. This is because the water authorities in the communities use outdated or inadequate systems, or run out of money for the chemical treatments, forget to use the chemicals, or use too much or too little. The term 'potable water' has a different definition in Honduras. It seems to mean water coming through a faucet, not water 'fit for human consumption' like we tend to think in the US.
(Photo: 'potable water')

Rio Cangrejal, La Ceiba, Honduras2. This one is hard to wrap your head around, but when there is rain — inundations of tropical rain measured in feet not inches! — there is often not more water available, but less. Why? Because most of the water in Honduras comes from rivers and when it rains, the rivers turn to mud (from man-made problems), so many water authorities have to turn off the water supply to prevent the filtering equipment from clogging up.
(Photo: Cangrejal River after a storm by David Ashby, Helping Honduras Kids)

dry riverbed, El Porvenir, HondurasAnd when there is no rain, there is insufficient water available because the rivers and creeks have dried up. Here in La Ceiba, we get an average of 3 meters of rain per year. That is almost 10 feet of rain! But many colonias have water rationing year round.
(Photo of a river bed during the dry season)

3. Most water associations, government or private, are not sustainable. They charge what neighbors can afford or are willing to pay rather than what it realistically costs to provide and maintain the water system. Thus, when something goes wrong (as it did in my neighborhood), there is no money for repairs.

4. This was the most shocking of all: Despite the critical and constant water rationing in Tegucigalpa, the average Tegucigalpa household uses more water than the average US household! Amazing, considering that, in general, homes and property lots are much smaller, there isn't much at all in the way of watering lawns or filling swimming pools, only the upper-middle to upper classes might have washing machines or dishwashers, and they don't have any running water at all a good bit of the time! I can't remember if this study was based on households with running water or on total households in the city. If the latter, that statistic is worse than ever.

I believe that the reason for this anomaly is waste. First, the water installations are old and/or often poorly constructed even when new. Probably a good percentage of the water seeps into the ground before ever arriving at the faucet. It's not at all unusual for water pipes to be above ground and to be able to see those leaks and the precious resource dripping or even spewing into the ground.

Second, a lot of people living in areas where water is rationed have the habit of leaving the faucets turned on so that they will know when the water is available. If that lucky hour or two of water availability happens when they are at work or away from home, they want to have at least a bucketful of water when they get home — the rest goes down the drain. Despite the 'Cada gota cuenta!' (every drop counts) campaign, water conservation or preservation of water quality is just not something that most people feel responsible for. Education in this area is definitely needed before it is too late.

boy carrying laundry, HondurasWe often wonder why Honduras hasn't advanced like some other countries with similar histories. Perhaps the lack of clean, running water should rank right up there with corruption? What is more basic to human life than water? When people are sick from the water, they can't work. When children are infested with parasites or skin problems, they can't learn. When children are needed to haul water from the creek instead of going to school, they aren't going to be successful, productive members of society when they grow up.
(Photo: Children carrying the laundry home after washing in the river.)

Something to think about. If you or your organization is looking for a worthwhile project to help Honduras, you might consider looking in to what you can do to help the poor with water. Some groups have helped communities to organize and install water systems, and mostly importantly, to teach them how to effectively run them. Others provide the simple and inexpensive sand water filters that any household can use. If you are involved in such an organization in Honduras, please leave a comment with your website or email so people can contact you.

Meanwhile, enjoy your water. Or if you want to experience how most of the world lives, turn yours off for a couple of days. It will be an eye-opening experience.

Want to know more?

World Water Day is an article that I wrote in 2007 that discusses the multi-faceted problem of water in Honduras. I think you'll find it interesting.

The photos used above are linked to the original articles.

Related articles from other Honduran bloggers:

Honduras Gumbo: Check out Laurie's article from Tegucigalpa.
Hugo Chinchilla: Dificultades en el mundo para acceder al agua potable
His Eyes Honduras: Sometimes nary a drop to drink
Chad and Trina Baron, a heart for Honduras: Water

(If you've written an article about water in Honduras, please let me know and I'll add it to the list.)

See the background on Blog Action Day: Water at Change.org and links to many more articles written from across the world.
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