February 1, 2023

Green Scene – Water, Water Everywhere…

Mariette Brown is an office manager at a law firm, a sculptor and a watercolor painter.  She lived in Old Lyme for 18 years, and three years ago moved to Old Saybrook, where she lives on a hill with her husband, two dogs, two cats, 4,357 voles and approximately 90,000 bees.  The daughter of our founding publisher, Jack Turner, she loves the woods, the ocean, rivers, clouds, animals, plants, bugs, chocolate and good French bread.  In short, she loves the world.  (She can take or leave humans as a species, but does enjoy a few individuals.)  At this point, to her, almost everything has environmental ramifications.

Water, Water Everywhere … and Not a Drop to Drink

The recent sudden summer storms bring home a situation I encountered this past February.  I had recently returned from a trip to El  Salvador, which—in my quest for eternal youth—I took with our teen group from the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. 
We were there near the end of the dry season, and while it was dry and dusty, available water was not an issue.  It came gushing from the hose to water the lawn where we stayed, and to fill our pool.  It was spread on the roads to keep down the dust.  It was freely available from the relatively high water table on the coastal plain where we were working.  The plants in peoples’ gardens were lush, even in this dry season.
Only 25% of the population of El Salvador has safe drinking water, even though a lot of the country gets 6 feet of rain a year, mostly falling w/in their six-month rainy season.  Contrast that to here in Connecticut, where we get an average annual rainfall of 3.5 feet a year, and you get a sense of how soggy it must get.
The results of flooding showed in the washed-out bridges, the years-old detours around homes to a shallow place where a makeshift bridge serves one-way traffic.  Perpetual guards were stationed before the old bridges, to make sure no one mistook the roads as complete.  They had nice little set-ups, seats of overturned buckets, umbrellas for shade, a flashlight for night-time.  But everyone knew.  It had been that way for so long.
The water, abundant from the tap, the toilets, the showers, the pools, was a disaster to get in your mouth.  The group we worked with supplied water for our drinking (and toothbrushing, food rinsing, dishwashing – the list grew as we thought about the problem – and as more and more of us came down with some mysterious malady…) provided in ubiquitous five-gallon blue water bottles. 

We saw enormous trucks of blue water bottles out for delivery in San Salvador.  Some places had rows and rows of bottles lined up outside their doors.  We also saw trucks pumping water from the river – for what, I don’t want to know.  To fill our blue bottles?
Conveniently, waiting at home for me on my return was the new issue of National Geographic—devoted to water.  Polluted water for much of the world is not just an inconvenience, it’s a fact of life.  In many countries around the world, people just cannot afford to buy those blue bottles of clean water.  Dirty water causes many illnesses, resulting in time lost from school, from work, medical expenses and many times, death. 
El Salvador’s problem is very similar to the problems in other poor countries around the world.  Their infrastructure and planning are poor to non-existant, resulting in polluted wells from lack of engineering oversight.  Wells are contaminated by being put too close to latrines, to polluted rivers or from flooding.  The water table in El Salvador is so high that when the rains come, the resulting floods contaminate their shallow wells.  (We saw this here at home in the late March storm when wells in Rhode Island and parts of Southeastern Connecticut were contaminated by the floodwaters.)
The solutions all sound so simple—dig a well, or dig a deeper well, right?  Many NGOs and charitable aid groups are working hard on exactly this sort of thing.  All too often, though, aid groups come in and provide the materials for clean wells and water in a particular region, but fail to provide for maintenance.  Everything works fabulously until something breaks, and then the community doesn’t have the knowledge or the finances to fix the pump, the leak, whatever. 
Fortunately this is changing.  Aid organizations are now training and supporting people in establishing governing boards to manage their communal resource, teaching them to repair the equipment and to establish a budget for maintenance.
There are other solutions, and some of them seem so easy.  In some places in Africa, people sterilize their water by putting it in bottles, and laying it in the hot equatorial sun for a day.  The heat and the sunlight kill the harmful bacteria, making it safe to drink.  (Google the “SODIS” method, developed by a Swiss group)   Another group works with local potters to make ceramic filters to filter out impurities. (Google “Potters for Peace”.) 
As the water improves, so do the lives it affects.  Less time is spent down and out from illness, away from school or work. Incomes go up, kids manage to finish school, and less time is spent on the very act of obtaining water, freeing people (usually women and girls) up to do the rest of living.
Barbara Kingsolver wrote one of the essays in the water issue of National Geographic, and closed with this astute observation: While we may depend on water, all the harm we do to it we do to ourselves.  We need water.  But water does not need us.  It will carry on, with or without us.