In highschool, Ms. Shelton, my grade 12 English teacher, had us read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I remember talking at length about the symbolism of water within the book. Rivers and streams run like veins over our earth’s surface. Water brings life, takes life, enables exploration and trade, and is an essential source of food and drink. It calms us, cleanses us, and, though flood, drought, tsunami, and hurricane, has the power to devastate us. I was fascinated by the concept and the many trickle down effects of water (pun always intended), but never thought about the possibility of not having water. I didn’t think about the book or the power of water again until living and working in Malawi two years ago.
In many ways, Malawi is in dire straits. The country’s infrastructure is paralyzed by extreme poverty, ongoing drought, and lack of export commodities. Worse, much of the infrastructure is dependent on water; Malawi’s electricity comes from hydro-electric power dams on the Shire River. When water levels are low, the country’s electricity supply is impacted. Drought also means crops are not adequately irrigated, resulting in large-scale food scarcity for the nation’s 15 million inhabitants. And on top of that, drought means a lack of access to water – clean or otherwise – for drinking, food preparation, and washing.
Toward the end of my stay in Malawi and after a particularly long fuel and electricity crisis, water was becoming desperately scarce. I lived in Area 49, one of the more developed and wealthy neighbourhoods in Lilongwe. Women began asking for water door to door in the few neighbourhoods such as mine, where infrastructure was more developed and evidently prioritized in times of shortage. We were feeling the combined crises, but still had intermittent water flow and electricity. In other parts of the city and country, days without water were quickly turning into weeks.
I lack eloquence in expressing just how much this experience reverberated within me. It had never occurred to me that water could literally be a luxury. World Vision commercials frequently talk about ‘lack of access to clean drinking water,’ but the situation in Malawi was even more shocking than such commercials had conveyed to me. I naively assumed that there is always a source of water, it just might not be particularly clean, ideal, or near. As the heat pressed on in Malawi, the meandering, muddy Lilongwe River was nearly dry.
In Area 49, we need only wait a handful of hours, 24 at most, and our water would be back on, even if only for a few minutes. Living in a country where water shortages are a reality, there is always a jerry can or a plastic pail of extra water on hand. But what happens when days go by and your pail is nearly empty, your rations growing smaller, and there is no relief in sight? If you are a peasant in the city, already dependent on public water pumps, chances are there actually is no other realistic source of water.
During this particular crisis, the national newspaper was reporting of women gathered at public pumps, sitting shift around the clock and waiting days for the moment when the taps would finally flow free. I have never tended a faucet in my life, let alone with thirst, desperation, and a family depending on me.
Becoming water-conscious was my first step in what will surely be a lifelong process of ‘going green’. Witnessing the shortage of water in Malawi, and experiencing people’s pure relief in turning on the taps after days without water, I realized how loose our relationship with water is in most of the West; we turn on the tap, and out comes crystal clear, drinkable water. End of story. Our lakes and rivers are relatively clean. There is no need to boil water. In most cases, there is no need to filter minerals and dirt. Having never experienced a shortage, conservation just doesn’t cross our minds.
Returning to Canada, I took – and continue to take – baby steps in conserving at home. When washing dishes, use a minimum of water. Rinse by dipping all dishes in a sink with a bit of water, rather than running the water each time. Shut the tap off when brushing teeth. Take fewer showers. Take shorter showers. (This one is admittedly difficult for me, a lover of longggggg, hot showers!) Reuse excess boiled water by watering plants or washing dishes.
Of course, my conservation efforts in Canada won’t solve water shortages in Malawi. Still, it’s important to not take this finite resource (clean drinking water) for granted. By cutting my water consumption in Canada, I’m also lessening the amount of energy required to purify and deliver water to my home. And who knows, if we all took a few baby steps, maybe the climate conditions causing drought in Malawi would be a little less severe.
In Rwanda, the longest water shortage I’ve experienced thus far has been 24 hours, and was, quite unfortunately, on my first day at my new apartment. I had picked up veggies and rice at the market for dinner, but needed water to wash and cook with. Not having had time to stock my jerry can and water bucket, my dinner consisted of peanuts and ginger biscuits. On day three of my typical three-day-no-shower cycle, I went to bed early and hoped there would be water in the morning. Not so. I ‘shampooed’ and ‘washed’ with baby powder and started work a tad greasy but smelling fresh as a baby’s bottom. Not ideal, but the great thing is that your hair and skin gets used to fewer showers and stop producing as much oil that requires us to have a shower in the first place. *Note: Not, to my knowledge, scientifically proven, but with a few years experience, seems to be the case.
Now settled in to my apartment, I keep a healthy supply of boiled drinking water on hand as well as a full bucket and jerry can. When getting drinking water, I’ve found it’s best to run the tap a few seconds so the water is less likely to have excess minerals or dirt. I make sure to collect this water and add it to my water bucket, rather than letting it go down the drain. Every three or four days when a shortage hits, I am able to cook, wash, and drink, but I ration cautiously. I pour two cups into a pot and use this to wash my hands. If necessary I’ll use a cup to wash veggies or to prepare rice for dinner. So far I’ve managed to get away without having to ‘shower’ via sponge bath … I’ll save that till my baby powder supply runs out!
I hate sounding preachy and I certainly am not suggesting everyone ought to trade in their cars for bicycles or start living only by rainwater. Interestingly, we all already make a number of ‘environmental’ choices every day that we think of more as habit than conscious practice. The more I make a commitment to going green, the more I appreciate the lifestyle my parents created for me. I often think of my dad as the original ecologist – his dedication to recycling, conserving water, and conserving electricity left me rolling my eyes many times as a kid, and meant that the mouldy Tupperware container I tried to hide in the garbage never made it to collection. Instead – usually after much argument – I’d be made to clean it out and continue using it to transport school lunches. I also used to resent that my mom would make us water the flower beds with water collected by rain barrel, which required several trips to the barrel and back.
Whether they think of it as environmentalism and whatever their motives for environmental actions, I think they’re both pretty rad. Their every day small routines made me realize that habits are acquired over time (you could say that it took a full 18 years of living with them for it to sink in with me!) and that all of the little actions add up in a huge way over time. I cringe to think of how many mouldy plastic containers I would have sent to the landfill had my dad not been inspecting the garbage! (Thanks/sorry, parents/planet!)
“What saves us is efficiency–the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force– nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.” ― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness