“No hay agua,amor” my host mum, Aura, greets me this morning.
I mutter a greeting in return and stumble in my sleep-drunken state to the bathroom to splash some water on my face but as I turn on the faucet- no hay agua. There isn’t any water. I groan. This will be the third day in a row without water, each day getting significantly worse. The broken pipe that supplies water to the city has broken, no one knows when they will come to fix it. I dip a bucket deep into the depths of the rapidly depleting storage barrel for a few drops of water and go to put on my running shoes for my morning walk with Aura.
On our way back from our walk that winds up away from the highway into the hills of the surrounding communities we pass her cousin Berta’s house and usually always go in for a cup of coffee. This morning it way also for practical reasons: she has a latrine, a drop toilet. The morning’s conversation is punctuated by conversations about previous water shortages and puns about sweat,smells, and shit.
Amid their joking I sense the tension. Most Nicaraguans are serial optimists, with a “c’est la vi” outlook on life and unwillingness to let themselves stress out about the (often very unpredictable) future. They are also realists though, and like being prepared to some extent so, while joke about the broken pipe lasting for a week and everyone smelling bad and having to stay home from work because they can’t shower, they also give each other side glances, trying to figure out to what extent the other believes it might be true. “Fijase, no hay agua” (look, there is no water) is an actual, real excuse for being later, not coming to work, backing out on plans here.I laughed about it before, but somehow it isn’t that funny anymore, now having realized just how much it really affects everything.
There is an obvious priority in water usage that I have been privy to these last few days. The lowest priority are things that use a lot of water like laundry. If the water goes that is it- no clean clothes for three days. Closely following that is mopping and flushing toilets. I have never realized just quite how much water is needed to flush a toilet. It is an absolutely ridiculous and, after a weekend of using composting toilets in Jiquilillo, also completely unnecessary. The garden is close behind. The first plants that suffer are the ornamentals, then Aura’s prize roses, and then my vegetables. Next is hair-washing. Then we start to ration the water for bucket showers. Along with all of this we also start to ration or decrease activities that will in someway require water: I have stopped cooking and started to eat my dinner with the family as it will require water to clean extra pots and pans. I don’t dig around in my garden daily as I need a lot of water to wash the dirt off my hands. We don’t go and do exercise because it will mean we will need to shower twice in one day.
Basically it means we do a lot of sitting around doing nothing, which is fine because 2 out of the 3 nights we also have a blackout from 6-10pm. Fun. The most important water and hardest to ration is the water for drinking and the water for food. Water to cook the rice, wash the vegetables, cook the beans, wash the pots and pans. It is shocking and eye-opening to physically see just how much water we really need a day, and by how much one can reduce that if need be.
There is a certain type of vicious cycle that I can see forming, especially if the water shortage continues. With decreased water, there is also decreased importance put on properly cleaning cooking instruments(already below food safety standards). Raw meat is cut on a plastic cutting board, rinsed off with cold water (there is only one temperature of water here: luke-warm-cold-ish), and then the fruit cut up and blended for the daily fresco, fruit juice. As water dwindles, washing of utensils becomes performative rather than thorough. If someone were to get sick, there is no water to properly clean their cups, body or bathrooms. the infection probability rises exponentially as more and more people get sick. The health center and hospital are also on rations- and probably a place where at this point you would get sicker rather than getting better. How much more water does a sick person need? A lot.
It seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Talking about disasters- if some disaster really did happen right now- not unlikely in a country prone to earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions- we would all be screwed, everyone already scraping the bottom of the barrel of their reserved water storage.
In case you can’t tell- not having water makes me anxious.
As we walk back to our house from Berta’s we see our neighbor struggling towards us carrying two containers filled with water. He greets Aura and myself.
“Who has water?” Aura asks
“Candida” he mentions as he lifts the buckets up again.
“Who is Candida?” I ask as we run inside to grab buckets.
“The women in the stone house on the corner where we sometimes buy tortillas when we run out and who is married to the man with the machete that opens the coconuts you get from Silvia ,” my host mum answers as way of a descriptor.
When we arrive at Candida’s house there is already a line of neighbors, all patiently waiting; the unquestioned assumption of the neighbors and Candida’s unquestioning acceptance of the situation forming the glue that holds this community together.
“I just need a little” Aura says as a way of explanation as she butts ahead of the line. Here, too, is a patient acceptance, a deep knowledge of each others private lives and acceptance that because Aura has an official job at the bank, her time does indeed warrant priority.
Struggling back to the house with the buckets I reflect on how much my views have changed and a conversation I had recently with a friend. He was asking me if I thought, that by living here in a semi-remote city, living the problems that the people here experience on an everyday basis, if that made me somehow more knowledgeable or better equipped to understand global development issues.
Specifically he asked: would the time spent living in country with a family not be better used studying at university, or gaining hard-skills somewhere else?
I was on the fence when we last talked, but as we go into our fourth day without water I have this realization about the importance of what I am doing here. Germans have multiple different words for understanding or knowing things. Wissen is to know something theoretically, conceptually. Verstehen is to understand something on a more personal level, to understand something contextually. Begreifen literally means to “grab something to oneself”. Nachvollziehen means “the ability to reconstruct it”.
I know, in theory, all of what I have experienced in the last few days, having studied about it in international development and nutrition classes. I know that people will ration water in shortages, unnecessary activities being last and food-related ones being first priority. I have learned that in situation where water access is sporadic, informal networks will often step up to supply people before formal ones do. But for the first time in my life I really feel like I understand it all. It is not an objective theory anymore, it is a real subjective experience, with faces and place names and real fears and real responses.
So I suppose this is a rather length response to my friend. Yes, for me at least living here has allowed me to know and understand day to day problems,fears and responses on such a tangible level that I feel much better equipped to start to understand problems and begin to understand solutions. Yes, the context will always be different and depend on culture,social structure, gender roles, access,history,politics and environment but there are some things that schools and hard skills can’t teach you, and some things that are universal: in this case the fixation on water that happens when there is none, the way that the quality of life diminishes so rapidly, and perhaps the most important and least teachable thing: the sheer communal anxiety of living without water.