Water: Intertwined in the Barbed Wire of Poverty

Children hauling water in Malawi

Children fetching water in Malawi. Image via Wikipedia.

In National Geographic’s April 2010 special issue on water, Tina Rosenberg wrote an article entitled “The Burden of Thirst” that delves into many cultural and gender issues concerning the acquisition of water, and its prominent seat in what Rosenberg terms the “vicious circle of inequality”.

In her article, she highlights the vast chasm of accessibility to clean water between wealthy nations and poor nations, noting that even water more akin to “microbe soup” is hard to come by in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. She also illustrates how the struggle to obtain water drives a salient social problem — gender inequality:

“Where clean water is scarcest, fetching it is almost always women’s work… The reputation of a woman in [the Ethiopian district of] Konso … rests on hard work. [The interviewee Aylito Binayo states:] “If I sit and stay at home and do nothing, nobody likes me. But if I run up and down to get water, they say I’m a clever woman and work hard.”

Judgements like these on women may define their roles in society, but it seems that personal identity as well is shaped by the vital liquid that is taken for granted in industrialized nations.

“The task of fetching water defines life for Binayo. [Amongst other domestic chores] … none of [them] are as important or as consuming as the eight hours or so she spends each day fetching water.”

After fleshing out Binayo’s personal story and bringing it into context of the many shackles that hold the poor back from more productive and healthy lives, Ms. Rosenberg asserts what she believes to be the solution:

“Bringing clean water close to people’s homes is key to reversing the cycle of misery. Communities where clean water becomes accessible and plentiful are transformed. All the hours previously spent hauling water can be used to grow more food, raise more animals, or even start income-producing businesses. Families no longer drink microbe soup, so they spend less time sick or caring for loved ones stricken with waterborne diseases. Most important, freedom from water slavery means girls can go to school and choose a better life.”

Water enslavement in Nicaragua

From my experience, it seems that the poor outside of Africa have felt no respite from the lack of clean water either; in Nicaragua, potable water’s scarcity is at the root of a host of problems for the poor.

The well (left) at a local clinic dries up during the dry season, leaving a parched hole (right) that only reverberates a dusty thud when a stone is tossed in.

During my time interning in Nicaragua, I authored two approved grants for the construction of wells and the improvement of sanitation systems via new sewer piping and the building of public latrines. Both projects were located in rural regions on the Atlantic Coast. For those unfamiliar with Nicaragua’s departments, the two largest by area are the North Atlantic and South Atlantic. Both hold what some argue to be the worst living conditions in the country.

While all of Nicaragua has its zones and pockets of water scarcity and contamination, it is in these two departments that potable water is the most sorely needed due to its overwhelming absence and the overwhelming majority of rural inhabitants who practice subsistence agriculture. Constrained to the primacy of water in their livelihoods, most farmers with small plots of lands suffer immensely during the dry season, which begins in October and abates around May, although recent years have seen it extend into months once associated with the rainy season.

During the dry season, ponds, creeks, and other ground waters dry up. With more sunlight penetrating into the shallow water that remains, photosynthesizing microbes flourish. These creatures then become food for a host of other microbial fauna, including bacteria and protozoans that infect the people who are forced to drink from the contaminated water source.

Compounding this problem, the fewer sources of water become overcrowded. Livestock raised in the area drink side by side with the poor, meanwhile defecating in or near the water. This further spreads  disease that particularly targets children and the elderly.

But other age groups are not spared. Because of water scarcity, crops grow poorly and in insufficient yields. This translates to malnourished families whose bodies cannot fight off infection caused by the microorganisms that they reluctantly ingest when drinking the meager water sources. At this point, the “vicious circle of inequality”, with water as its king, comes full circle.

Ms. Rosenberg posits many provoking questions, such as “How would Binayo’s life be different if she never had to go to the river for water again?” and asserts that faucets in proximity of each abode could change whole societies.

I ask myself these same questions about the rural poor in Nicaragua, and often dream of the boundless possibilities access to clean water could bring to these impoverished peoples. Echoing Ms. Rosenberg’s views, I agree that with many hours a day freed from the task of searching for water, families could better care for their land and improve their crop yields. With “a faucet outside their doors”, poor families could wash themselves and prevent the incidence and transmission of a variety of illnesses. They could send their children to school in lieu of keeping them at home to watch their younger brothers or sisters, or using them to help fetch water.

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As we see, scarcity of water gives birth to social issues that compound the plight of the poor. Gender inequality is bred when gathering water becomes the unsolicited, unfair burden of women that also happen to be mothers, providers, and caretakers.  Social inequality develops when whole societies are prevented from making economic progress by the geographies they were born into. Infection runs amok.

While regarding water as the everlasting fount that it is in wealthy nations like the United States, we also see how its scarcity and impediment to access dries up the hopes and futures of our brothers and sisters throughout the world living in poverty.

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