The average American uses 17 gallons of water per shower. We also use gallons of water to wash our faces, teeth, dishes, clothes, dogs, and once in a while even our cars. We flush away even more gallons of water. Access to clean water is something most of us take for granted. Maybe if you’ve been camping and have had to either tote water with you or pump and purify it from a stream, you have a different idea about the privilege of turning on water at a tap. But even that is easily forgotten once we return to the seductive comforts of civilization.
Last winter, I had the opportunity to visit a small, rural town in Haiti and I learned about the value of water. I stayed with a family who gave me the biggest room in their house as my bedroom and provided me with my own private bathroom. The bathroom was outside, around the corner of the house. It was a cinderblock stall, about four by four feet, with a shower curtain pulled across one side. In the stall was a stool and on the stool rested a five gallon drum of water. A large plastic cup rested on the cover to the water. There was a small shelf that I could put my toothbrush and a bar of soap on. My hosts provided a towel and washcloth. On the ground, to the right of the water drum, was a heavy black rubber bucket. That was my toilet. For pee. For more serious business, you had to walk down the road about 150 yards to another cinderblock stall out in a field that didn’t fuss with a shower curtain. The opening faced away from the road and there was a beautiful view of the Haitian mountains across the bay.
Matenwa is hot and dusty. At night, I didn’t want to get in bed covered in the soft silt that clings to everyone there. So each evening I would wrap my towel around me and go out to “shower.” My hosts had instructed me to take a cup of the fresh water and pour it over my washcloth and toothbrush. Don’t dip those things into the bucket of water, they cautioned, miming what to do. I developed a routine. I used one cup to pour over my sweaty body and to moisten my washcloth. Then I would soap up, scrub, and use one more cup to rinse. While I was drying, I would pour a tiny bit of water on my toothbrush, brush, and then rinse my mouth out with a swig of bottled water. I would look up at the stars each night, with the Milky Way streaking directly overhead, feel the cool air on my skin, and think about how lucky I was to be able to be so close to the land.
One day, I asked Janoz, my host mother, if I could go to the well with her daughter. I had been learning how to use water sparingly, but wanted to know what it meant to actually have to fetch it each day. Shoodley, a beautiful, slender 16 year old, thought I was crazy to want to do that task, but we set off together one morning before it got too hot, water bottles in hand.
We walked about a mile, down the hard-worn dirt road. As we got closer, people passed us going in the opposite direction, some with donkeys carrying multiple water containers tied together on their backs, others balancing full drums of water on their heads. We turned at a fork, and the road become more of a mountain path, descending steeply into a glen, lush with trees and ferns and other deep green vegetation. It was cool and moist there, a different world from the arid landscape of the village. A small metal pipe emerged from the ground. Clear water ran out of it into a small pool and then trickled into a brook babbling down the hillside. A young woman was standing in the pool bathing. She had nothing on but underpants and had totally soaped up her body. Water glistened off her dark brown skin and twinkled in her hair. She continued with her bath as Shoodley went to fill our water containers. Not a word was spoken.
We climbed the steep slope back up the mountain. It was getting hot and I was sweating, breathing hard as we scrambled over the rocks. Shoodley frequently asked if I wanted to rest, but I shook off her concern. I was carrying a small container, not even a gallon, but it became heavy and I switched hands frequently. I tried to imagine what it would be like climbing up that hill with five gallons of water on my head.
It took us about a half hour to get back to the house, my sneakers and legs covered in dust. Janoz laughingly asked me how our trip had been. Did I see what I’d hoped to see, experience what I’d hoped to experience? Yes, I had “experienced” what it is like to fetch a little bit of water for one day. But I was very aware that their family was not depending on me to bring water for them to cook and clean with, to survive with. I was not making the trip every day. I knew that I’d been an observer, a tourist, maybe even a voyeur, and even more acutely aware of my privilege. That night, I used even a little less water in my evening shower.
Water is life. We must have water to survive. Civilizations have developed around water. Think of the Euphrates and the Nile. Cultures have been defined by water. Girls and young women spend their lives walking to fetch water for their families. It is one of our most precious resources. But so many people in the world do not have access to this resource. And then there are those of us that simply assume that it will always be there. At the turn of a tap. Think about it the next time you take your 17 gallon shower.