Catching Water

Water is life. I have come to attach a newfound significance to this pithy line. Gaetan mentioned some of the challenges of not having stable power, while we constantly remind ourselves of what a luxury it is. We have to ration our battery use. Alter plans and brave the outdoors. Spend more money on things like gas (for boiling water) or nip out for coffee as an exchange for the use of a generator. I thought not having power was pretty shitty. But allow me to introduce a greater crisis: drought.

7 weeks without running water. This unhappy circumstance is due to critical drought-induced water shortages. We were hearing whisperings of the inevitability of this shortage – people were growing increasingly worried about the postponement of rain. In fact, as I write, it is purportedly rainy season… but is it? Rainy season was meant to arrive mid- to end of March. Instead dry season scorched (I’m talking 35C +) and stretched into late May. Not a drop came. The dam that feeds the water supply of Gulu dried up at the end of March. Piped water shut off soon after. Our place has a reservoir tank that is shared among us two and eight other people, so you can imagine how quickly that ran out. The impacts of climate change are here and they are verging on devastating.

My husband has braved a 6-hour journey from Kampala, where he noted his favourite moment was being able to have a proper shower. I haven’t had a shower in 7 weeks. Sometimes I feel like you could fry chips in my hair.

Alas, you don’t know how good you have something until it is gone… I always said to Gaga that I often feel like a SIMS character. The minute my very basic needs aren’t met I sure can get into a serious funk. What I have learned about myself is how much lack of water – the essential ingredient to any measure of hygiene – weighs on your morale. I have also realized how necessary water is in everything we do on a daily basis.

Think about how much water one typically uses throughout the average day. A small amount to brush your teeth. A couple of handfuls to wash the face and neck at the break of dawn and dusk. A litre for the morning coffee for two (yes, Gaetan has adapted to Canadian-sized coffees). More still anytime we need to wash our hands. A sink full for the day’s dishes. Conservative estimates say 13 litres each time we flush the toilet[i].  Another 65 litres for an 8 minute shower[ii]. A report published in 2012 tell us that “the average Swiss person consumes 162 litres of water per person per day for domestic use such as drinking, cooking, cleaning or washing”[iii]. This amount balloons to 4,200 litres per person per day when we factor in the requirements to produce food, beverages, clothing and other products.

How many liters of water is needed to produce goods
Quantity of water needed for the production of good

Lately, we have become masters of rationing. We were already abiding by the golden rule of “if it’s yellow, let it mellow…” when flushing the toilets. But our lack of access to running water has led us to be ultra-prudent. We don’t wash our faces in the day, and often forego the rinsing of the toothbrush. We have to be selective with what to include in our laundry to be washed (though, this may be a positive considering we are handwashing our clothes!)

To bathe ourselves, Gaetan has cleverly devised a system where we boil 1.5 litres of water and mix it with 3 litres of the icy rain water we collect to warm up our bucket baths. We place our feet in the basin, sit over the bath, and scoop and splash lukewarm water over the most important bits. Washing hair is tricky- especially when it is long – it is very difficult to get the soap out. I find myself daydreaming about shaving my head.

We only wash the dirty dishes when they are spilling out of the sink and we know we have enough water to make it through another day. We’ve actually been trying to reuse dishes as much as possible too and work carefully not to spill or make any messes. And don’t get me started on properly cleaning the floor. Our feet are permanently dirty, I fear.

We have also grown adept at catching water. This is actually the most fun part, or at least we try to make it so. This skill has been entirely learned by observing our neighbours, and refined by our crafty teamwork. On the rare day it rains, our ears prick up at the hint of a drop. We stand to attention and race to start the assembly line to catch water. Usually it’s Gaetan first out of the gates, charging into the rain. I am running back and forth with all the water vessels we own – passing them off to him. Then the assembly line begins. It depends on the strength of downpour. Gaetan has placed the buckets at the receiving end of the gutter spout from the roof. We usually try to wait a couple of minutes if we can to let whatever dust and debris get washed away. It doesn’t always work. Then I set up the cut up Coca-Cola bottle top and Jerry Cans. Once the basins are filled, we empty them into a bucket, which is then used to fill the Jerry Cans until full, replacing the basins under the spout. We do this for as long as it rains or until we have filled each of our receptacles. We close our water ritual by lugging these heavy containers back inside. We have an 80 litres capacity and this usually has to last us several days to one week. Everything depends on the rain.

Pair this water struggle with the scant provision of electricity lately and you might see why we seem to have taken a hit. It’s completely frustrating when you already feel so desperate for lack of water, but then to have to spend evenings with a candle or two and nothing to do. That boiling water trick feels much more luxurious when you can heat the water with a push of a button in a kettle in a lit room.

I have been getting used to this no water thing, don’t get me wrong. But in those quiet evenings, during a powerless candlelight chat, Gaetan and I talk about how we could be so much worse off. We talk about how demoralizing and dehumanizing it feels to not be able to clean yourself or your surroundings properly and the toll it takes on your energy levels, not to mention physical and mental wellbeing. Self-confidence plummets and frustration and fatigue set in.

What helps us to press on is to meditate and think about others. We try to think about the fact that we have access to health care if we get sick. We also have a proper roof over our heads that allows us to catch water and the money to buy the containers to collect water (not to mention replace them if ever needed). We also have the money to buy clean drinking water.

The concerns here remain and are growing. People are really worried about the lack of water for irrigating their crops. How will they put food in their children’s bellies? How will they produce anything to sell at the roadside or the village market to pay for their families’ needs or their kids’ school fees? What does this mean for the future of this region that relies virtually solely on subsistence agriculture?

Much of the water burden here is felt by women and young children (particularly girls), who are relegated the tasks of summoning superhero strength to fetch water for their families’ daily needs. In sub-Saharan Africa, water fetching takes several hours, “considerably shorten[ing] the time girls have available for schooling and disincentives families from prioritizing girls’ education”[iv]. On an average day, they travel 10 to 15 kms to collect water, carrying up to 20 kg per trip[v]. In South Africa alone, women walk the distance to the moon and back an astonishing 16 times per day[vi]. For now, we’ll be keeping our eyes and ears peeled for any sign of rain. Waiting to catch water.


[i] https://www.conserveh2o.org/toilet-water-use

[ii] https://www.home-water-works.org/indoor-use/showers

[iii] WWF Switzerland. (2012). The Swiss Water Footprint Report 2012. (p. 7) https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/WWF-SDC-2012-SwissWaterFootprint.pdf

[iv] Council on Foreign Relations. (2017). Water Access is a Gender Equality Issue. https://www.cfr.org/blog/water-access-gender-equality-issue

[v] http://www.gender.cawater-info.net/what_is/facts_e.htm

[vi] Ibid.