Good Good Water

I recently revisited a community I first went to on March 22nd. The only reason I happen to know I was there on March 22nd is because I later found out that happens to be World Water Day.

Like anyone else, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice (or even once) about that day’s moniker had I not been in a, how shall we say, uniquely ironic situation that day.

Several times on the drive, my boss and I found ourselves saying how we felt like we were in a different country. That’s how remote the settings were. I had a Paraguayan telling me it felt remote and removed. We were driving about as far off the beaten path as I’ve been in Eastern Paraguay – and by now I’ve been a few places. It’s definitely not the farthest away in hours or in kilometers, but in that other so hard to quantify measurement – feeling. Sometimes you just plain feel far from everything else. Most of the time it’s because it’s true. (Or because you’re lost).

The “road” (I use the term loosely) we were on cuts through the campo alongside the Parque Nacional Ybycui – the  borders of which seemed rather ambiguous, at least as far as the scenery was concerned. We were carrying with us, in the bed of the Hilux, a 200- liter blue plastic water barrel. For those of you reading in Liberia, Myanmar and  the United States that about 52 gallons. Like an oil drum. Only plastic. And filled with water.

On a side note. Water weighs 1 kilogram per liter. That’s convenient isn’t it. Or 8.35 pounds per gallon. Either way, there were 200 kilos worth of water standing up back behind our headrests.

The volunteer we were headed to visit had no water. When volunteers talk to each other and say they have no water, it means their community or their house doesn’t have running water. Some places do, some don’t. If you “don’t have water” you have a well. And bucket. And a pulley. Problem solved.

This particular fellow though, really didn’t have any water. His well dried up. Such an interesting expression. More like the land around his well dried up.

It hadn’t rained beyond a spit in certain parts of the country since before Christmas, almost four months earlier. The drought resulted in the nation’s soy exports falling by 60 percent this year according to one newspaper – a remarkable statistic given that it is the top export and the way this country earns its GDP. A very small handful of people lost several ocean freighters full of money, but the effects of the sequia reached well beyond crop production and began to hit families – ones with nothing invested in soy or anything else beyond the small plots of land they live on – directly.  Beyond personal consumption crops failing, wells in higher elevations began to dry up. Drinking water was carried from luckier, or lower-laying neighbors, or from the occasional meager and less-than-clean spring in the woods. Gardens, and with with them the source of any vegetables, shriveled in the sun. Laundry lines hung empty.

Turning on the faucet is something we take for granted, just like so many other things. Volunteers in Paraguay are spoiled you could say because lots of us have running water in our communities. Paraguay is a lucky spot in the world when it comes to h20 (I’ll resist the temptation to talk about the aquifer, again). In the Peace Corps you don’t expect to have running water – well let me rephrase, you shouldn’t expect to have running water. So you use a well. I won’t belittle it, using a well everyday for all your water needs (and they add up) isn’t easy or particularly fun. But you get used to it. You learn some of its benefits (always chilly drinking water that doesn’t rely on a pump to power it) and eventually you do the same thing as the rest of us: take for granted that it’s out there. Then one day, it’s not.

780 million people in the world lack access to clean drinking water. That’s two and half times the population of the United States. That’s one out of every nine people on the planet. Diarrhea – not heart attacks, not car crashes – is the leading cause of death in the world, mostly due to dehydration and lack of proper sanitation that relays on water. It claims the lives of 3.4 million people each year. That’s the population of Los Angeles. Drought has claimed more lives in the last century than any other natural disaster.

That was the alarming statistics section of this post. I’m not trying to say that the dried up well of a volunteer in Paraguay is causing kids to die of thirst. That wouldn’t be true. Or that the drought earlier this year caused any deaths. I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that it took me trying to unload a 440 pound barrel of water from the back of a pick truck four hours from nowhere, to begin to not take what comes out of the faucet for granted. Not sharing that seems like a disservice to those with buckets in their hands.

A few weeks after our delivery the rain returned and so did water in the well. As of this morning that volunteer’s well had again dried up.

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