The Place of Great Thirst

Brushing your teeth is a fundamental habit. Water, toothbrush, toothpaste. Brush for the length of one hummed song. Water, rinse, done. There is almost no thought involved in these actions. It’s something we all do everyday, twice a day (if we’re responsible). It’s not complicated, and yet last night as I was flowing through the motions, a thought popped into my head:

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Watching this video singlehandedly convinced my younger self to turn off the faucet while brushing. It painted a direct connection between saving adorable fishes and my toothbrushing habits. Conserving water was such an abstract concept to my kid-self, but I knew it was important. Now I know why.

This has never seemed more accurate.

Not a single drop of water has flowed from my tap this week. It took just a few short days to gain a new appreciation of the role water plays in my life. Old habits have to be adjusted. Now, each evening I fill a small jar from my water filter and use it to brush my teeth, wash my face and rinse my feet. Less than two cups of water can make me feel like a new person. It’s only a small taste of cleanliness, but it propels me through my bath-less days. Personal hygiene has taken a backseat to many other more important priorities.

First and most importantly, I make sure I have enough water to drink. Dying of dehydration doesn’t sound fun. After that, I use water for cooking. The dregs of this water is often used for cleaning dishes once I’m done eating – extra bang per drop. If I can, I also like to flush my toilet at least once a day, though even that can be forgone the longer the water is out. Tied for last place is cleaning my house, cleaning my clothes, and cleaning myself. As it gets hotter here, I suspect cleaning myself will take on greater importance.

My ears have now because acutely tuned for the gurgle of my toilet filling. This is usually the first sign that the water might be flowing. Buckets are placed under every faucet and my sinks have their stoppers in, all poised to catch the smallest drop. No matter what I am doing at the time, filling all my containers becomes the priority. It’s impossible to know when the water will be on again.

This is all just a consequence of living in a desert.

Although technically not a desert, my village is for all intense and purposes exactly that. There is a river that runs not far from my house, but you would never guess it. Dusty sand and scrub dominate the landscape. About 40km away is the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the beginning of the great Kgalagadi Desert. “Kgala” is Setswana for “great thirst” and Kgalagadi translates to something like “a waterless place.” I think that’s a hint.

But a week without water really isn’t that bad. In the past, my village has gone several months without running water. The prospect of that happening again is frightening. Other Peace Corps Volunteers in Botswana face this reality daily. Water is trucked into their villages just to sustain the population until the rains come.

Botswana in general is facing a water crisis. Diminished rainfall, increased consumption and limited infrastructure have intensified the problem. The further south in the country you go, the more apparent it becomes. Water levels do affect communities in the water-rich Delta region, but even a few hours south it means an adjustment in lifestyle.

The large majority of Botswana’s population lives in the southern region in and around Gaborone. Here, the water supply comes from a series of dams. Slowly, these dams are reaching critically low levels. Water in many villages, and Gaborone itself, is strictly rationed. There are scheduled outages – prescribed days and times when the water is switched off. As water levels drop further and further, these times become more frequent and widespread.

This is the Gaborone Dam which accounts for 50% of Gaborone’s water supply. The dam is currently below 2% capacity. (Photo Credit: Image Lounge BW)

Another water problem has become more apparent recently: the cleanliness of water. Historically, the water quality in Botswana has been good, most all water sources were potable and you could drink straight from the tap. This year however, the Botswana Bureau of Standards has reported that 14 of the 23 sub-districts in the country were not meeting water quality standards. This puts the population consuming this water at risk of waterborne diseases and contamination.

The water in my sub-district is fine to drink. It passed the water quality tests, but it does contain an abundance of hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide as a gas seems a bit scary – massively toxic and explosive – but in drinking water it seems to be mostly harmless. It makes my water a bit yellow and smell of rotting eggs. My water filter makes it much more palatable and you get used to the smell after a while.

Or not.

Youth in my village have taken water as an entry point into political action. Sick and tired of the smell of rotting eggs, several youth have submitted petitions to resolve the issue. Apparently the Ministry of Home Affairs heeded these petitions, and came to my village to talk about water quality, and to make assurances that it is being addressed. The Ministry brought with them a stream of trucks and employees from the Water Utilities Corporation. It’s a heartening sign that the government is responding to the concerns of the youth. It also means that maybe, just maybe, my water will run clear and odorless. Once it starts running again.

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