We all know that water is one of the primary needs of all living beings. Second to clean air, we cannot live without clean, fresh drinking water. But it becomes so easy to take this gift for granted when it is part, and always has been part, of our daily lives. Take it away, and our vulnerability is brought acutely to the forefront.

For the past three years, I have lived on Manitoulin Island in a small cottage. The source of water for this cottage, as is for all of the houses in the west end of Manitoulin, is a private well. Some are dug wells, some are drilled, and each well varies in quality and tang. The water at my neighbour’s house differs greatly from mine. It’s just the way it goes. The well is a drilled well, which means it delves deeper into the aquifer and therefore has the potential to be purer than most. The cold, fresh water in my cottage is sweet, pure, and clear. And for that reason alone, I would be willing to live there forever.

Ground water isn’t always pure. If a well is drilled too deeply, the water can be sulphurous. At the Community Hall in Silver Water, a few kilometers away from my cottage, the water is like so; strong, pungent and sulphurous, much like that distinctive aroma of hard-boiled eggs. So let’s just say that well water is not always the best water. But compared to city water, with its impurities and chlorination, it often is.

Let me tell you a story.

In May of 2013, when I was living in Toronto, my heart kept repeating over and over, “Go to Manitoulin for the summer.” It’s important to listen to these quiet whispers of the heart, because if you listen to them, they will guide you. I had been working at Humber College as a photographer in the year following my graduation from the Creative Photography program. I loved my job. I worked with such an amiable group of people. We worked hard, but our days were often split with peals of unrestrained laughter.

Yet over and over again, I felt this calling: Go to Manitoulin. And then, with my contract ending in perfect timing, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to move to Manitoulin. Humber had been like a safety net for me after graduating from college. It was difficult to leave for this new chapter in life. But then, I realized that my heart had known all along, and just like that, I decided to move to Manitoulin.

Now, here’s where the subject of water comes in. In the cottage, yes, the well water is pure, and fresh, and sweet, but the plumbing hadn’t been winterized properly when my uncle had last left the property three years previously. And when I called the west end’s plumber, Eric, to turn on the water, we discovered that the well pump, the device that lives under the sink and brings water into the house, had been ruined. Even a small amount of water that hasn’t been drained properly from a well pump can ruin the plumbing if left to winter in freezing temperatures. So I lived in the cottage that summer from the beginning of July—during a summer heat-wave, without water. Without having a car. Let this just sink in for a moment. Imagine living in the middle of a deep forest with no transportation, neighbours, or water.

Five weeks I endured. No water in the house with which to cook, clean or drink. I had to ask for assistance from a relative, a ride to her house to bathe and fill my water containers, and then back to the cottage. My water containers would only hold about four days of water. By the end, the situation became rather strained. The moment the water was running in the house, (after five weeks of waiting for the well pump to be repaired) was a moment of pure joy. Water is life, and without it we cannot survive.

Now, flash forward three years. Another autumn, the air filled with the rich, loamy scent of fallen leaves and cedar-covered ground. In my little cottage, surrounded by the voluminous stillness of the woods, I frenetically packed and prepared for my departure to Bolivia, much like the frantic scamperings of the little forest creatures in preparation for winter.

On my last day at the cottage, I had the plumbing winterized by Eric once again, the pipes completely drained and dry. Now, one day without water is completely doable, when you have enough water reserved in containers, and when you know that you will soon have water again. But imagine having the water run dry, without certainty that it would ever run again. Something you trusted and took for granted, suddenly gone, without warning.

Well, that is exactly what happened to the residents of certain parts of La Paz from the beginning of November, 2016. What I didn’t know before I arrived, was that Bolivia was experiencing the worst drought in 25 years; the government of Bolivia declared a state of emergency shortly after I arrived. When I arrived in La Paz, my first days were spent in an orientation to the country and to the organization I would be working for. The office was located in Achumani, a neighbourhood in the south of La Paz, one of the neighbourhoods that had severe water restrictions imposed upon it. On the first day, there was water in the office. But on the second day, much to our incertitude, the water had run dry: there was no running water in the office kitchen or bathroom. Now, the explanation given to us by our colleagues was that the seasonal rains were late that year in certain parts of the Andes. And that when the rains would come, the water would run normally once again. And yes, there is truth to this, but the problem is more complex.

The two Tuni-Condoriri glaciers normally provide spring runoff for El Alto and La Paz. But since 1983 they have been depleted by 39%.1 At this rate, within a few decades, they will certainly be all but a memory of an ice-covered shield. Without this spring runoff, the situation becomes increasingly complicated. Glaciers are estimated to provide 20–28% of water for El Alto and La Paz. Therefore, glacier loss will have a considerable impact, which will be felt particularly during the dry season, when glacial water provides the majority of urban water.2 Furthermore, Bolivia, as a developing country, has infrastructural problems within the system of pipes that carry fresh water to residences and businesses. It is estimated that about half of the fresh water in La Paz is lost due to leaks in the infrastructure.3

Achumani, and other southern neighbourhoods had water only very sporadically throughout November and December 2016. The quality of the water changed, as well. At the office, we filled dozens of 2-litre bottles with murky, yellow tap water for washing our hands and the dishes. What else could we do? When the water trucks would come, we would leave the office to fill 20-litre pitchers with water as well. During the workday, perhaps once a week, the sound of water coughing through the faucets would alert us to rush to the kitchen and bathroom to fill the water containers. Even water that is dirty and contaminated is better than no water. We took every possible measure to maintain a healthy environment and avoid possible contamination, such as using hand sanitizer religiously, stockpiling clean bottled water, and bringing food to the office instead of eating in restaurants that did not have running water.

Some of my colleagues lived in the south of La Paz, perhaps to be closer to the office. It’s always nice to have a short commute to work. But for them, they faced water restrictions both at home, and at the office. The courage and bravery with which my colleagues faced this situation was remarkable. Heads held high, these women refused to be defeated. We just continued our work, and did the best we could. That’s all one can ever do, really.

My understanding is that there are five water reservoirs that supply the city of La Paz: the Milluni, Hampaturi, Incachaca, Tuni Condorini and Tilata; as well as the Choqueyapu River, the latter of these which depends heavily on glacier run-off in the spring. Choqueyapu makes its way to Mount Illimani, the iconic snow peaked mountain that keeps watch over La Paz. Neighborhoods in the south of La Paz had water restricted due to the Hampaturi, Incachaca and Tuni Condorini reservoirs plummeting to nearly 1%.

The centre of La Paz had better access and quality of water because it is supplied by the Milluni reservoir and the Choqueyapu River. However, in Achumani, when the Hampaturi, Incachaca, Tuni Condorini reservoirs fell to 1%, the kitchen taps ran dry. There was a certain desolation in the arid streets; a pregnant pause; waiting, waiting, waiting for the water trucks to come. It was an unfair, albeit arbitrary distribution of resources, and had nothing to do with wealth, nor class; merely physical channels and infrastructure. To illustrate this, Achumani, one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in La Paz, had some of the most severe water restrictions.

Approximately 145,000 families in La Paz were severely impacted by the water crisis throughout November and December 2016. There were mothers with children, schools, all whom desperately needed water for survival. How can one bathe and nurture an infant without water? How can a household maintain hygiene and cleanliness without water? There were restaurant owners who also were affected by this crisis. How can one cook, and run a restaurant without running water? People of little means were forced to buy expensive bottled water that they couldn’t afford. Water is essential for life, and without it, life becomes impossible.

I was lucky. The apartment I live in is in Sopocachi, a neighbourhood not at all affected by the water shortage. The lack of parity—for a basic human right—between different neighbourhoods was astounding. Daydreaming out the window of a minibus one day, I witnessed a shocking display of wealth. I was pulled out of my reverie, to my horror, to see a groundskeeper at one of the embassies aggressively watering the cement surrounding the garden. Even having unrestricted water in my apartment, I still try in every way to reduce my consumption. In all clear conscience I could not do otherwise.

But what differentiated the situation for me from hopelessness and despair to temporary inconvenience is that I can leave La Paz. When my contract is finished, I will once again return to a life where clean, fresh water is a basic standard of living. In Canada, and many European nations, the governments take providing clean drinking water very seriously. But for many people of La Paz, as well as El Alto, the suburb of La Paz, they cannot, will not, leave their lives, and all that they have built.

During the first days at the office, I asked one of my colleagues, “¿Cuál es la solución?”

To which she replied, “Lluvia.”

“Lluvia.” I slowly echoed, my heart sinking with the realization of being at the mercy of the rains. And also not feeling like this was at all an adequate solution. That said, by the end of December, the situation improved. The months following were given rain, albeit not as much as there should be, but rain nonetheless.

Although the solutions to problems that face developing nations may seem superficially simple, they are often complex, and take years to be resolved. And the severity of this crisis cannot afford years. Most certainly it will be repeated again in following years. The acuity and health risk of this problem needs an immediate solution. But what can be done? And how can we minimize the damage before a solution is wrought?

 

1, 2 http://climatenewsnetwork.net/bolivian-water-crisis-glaciers-vanish
3 https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/nov/25/bolivia-drought-water-rationing-crops

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