Water. We all need it. Most of us spend a large part of our day using water. Think about it, how much time do you spend showering, washing hands, washing dishes, washing clothes, drinking water, cooking with water, watering plants, swimming, etc? Yet do we really notice it? For Americans I think the answer is no. I certainly didn’t. Our country has done such a phenomenal job of creating access to clean, potable, running water that it’s easy to overlook our most precious resource.
Water insecurity hasn’t hit the US. Sure, there are parts of the southwest where homeowners have to limit the amount of water used to wash cars and water lawns during the summer time. Yes, Texas has been gripped with a drought that has devastated the ranching industry in the state; but how many of Texans have cut back on showering to compensate for the lack of rain? How many Arizonans will re-wear their clothing three or four times to waste less water in the washing machine? How many New Mexicans still have grass lawns that without water would die in their desert landscape? How many Americans outside of these regions really care about water usage? How many even notice water?
Living in Africa, you cannot help but notice water. Water insecurity is a part of life here. There are places in Kenya where even deep boreholes will run out of water during the dry season. There are poorer people in Kenya who can’t afford wells or boreholes. The latter will run you over a million shillings (>$10,000) in country where many people make less than 5000 shillings a month ($50). So the majority of Kenyans are forced to rely on local water sources, like rivers, lakes and “ponds” for their water. None of these sources is very good. As a casual observer I’ve seen people gathering water just downstream from a pool full of garbage. I’ve seen people gathering water to wash potatoes from a muddy pond while a small herd of cows waded into the pool. I’ve seen other ponds where people collected water, washed clothes, bathed children and watered animals. I’ve seen a small boy dig a hole in a dry, sandy riverbed and carefully scoop the water into a container. Those stories you hear about women in Africa walking miles to a dirty water source, carrying 20 liters at a time on their heads? This is one of the places those women live.
In Kenya, I’m one of the lucky ones. I live in a relatively water-secure area on a compound with a well. It’s a relatively shallow well, only 20-30 feet deep, but even during the dry season it doesn’t run dry. Yet, even with this luxury water is so much more obvious. For most of my time here, I used a bucket on a rope to draw water from the well (no wheels, pumps or pullies to help). When you have to lift every ounce of water you use from the bottom of a well, you start to become conscious of how much you are using. Five Liters for dishes, one half a liter for washing my face, two liters each time I washed my hands, three liters for drinking, half a liter for cooking, 5 liters for bathing, 8 + liters to flush my toilet, 30 liters to wash clothes. The more frequently I did these things, the more water I would have to draw, so I got creative.
I reduced the amount of water I use. When cooking, I put in just enough water to cover the pasta or egg or whatever. If I just used water to boil an egg, I leave it for the next day, so that I can boil another egg in it. I bathe less and spot clean more. The cleanest basin of water from laundry day gets re-used to mop my floors. The toilet, my biggest water suck, gets flushed with all kinds of water. Grey water from laundry, dishes, bathing all goes down the toilet.
I know some of you are saying “ewwwwwwww….” right now, but it’s a fact of life here. It should be a fact of life in America. We are sucking our natural aquifers dry and for what? So that we can take 20 minute showers daily? So we can have large fields of short green grass in front of our houses that next to no one ever even steps on? So that our cars are shiny all the time? So that we can flush our crap down the toilet with clean (drinkable) water, leaving the bowl shiny and lovely? It’s insane.
That isn’t to say Kenyans don’t waste water. They do. There are car washes EVERYWHERE, and people with vehicles wash them all the time. My landlord washes his car every day and most days he has only driven 1km down the paved road and back. On a muddy day, my students will use liters and liters of water to wash their shoes off so that they will be perfectly polished. However, their waste is nothing like American water waste. Something has to change.