I suspect that some of you, readers of this blog, are equal water nerds as I am, and that you also take your professional interest along on holiday. At least, I cannot resist visiting the odd water works or taking photographs of the local water and sanitation facilities during my holidays. This summer holiday I not only had the opportunity to take photos, but to live for a week the type of rural water situation, that I write about so much, but rarely experience in reality. As I spent my vacation on a family visit to my brother, who is managing a farm in the Moldovan rural village of Cuhureştii de Jos, I got some first-hand experience of the common problems around rural water supply and realized that some of the myths around it, are myths indeed.
Let me start by describing briefly the water supply situation. In this village, as in many other villages in Moldova, the most common source of water are protected shallow wells, equipped with bucket and windlass. Many of these have small, and beautifully decorated, shelters around them. Many of the decorations are even religious, converting the shelters almost into small shrines. I assume that many have been developed in a self-supply manner, as all the wells and shelters look very different – clearly not developed as part of a massive roll-out programme. And the wells are many: every two to three houses share a well. Some families have a well on their own plot of land.
So what were the “lessons learnt”?
1. Fetching water is a pain in the neck. When writing about rural water, we always refer to basic norms of 25 lpcd within 500 m. But actually carrying those amounts of water is another thing, and a thing I sincerely never had done. For a week I tried to supply the whole family (4 adults, 2 kids) with water for washing, cooking, cleaning and laundry. I was lucky the walk to the well was only 30 meters or so. But, not being physically strong, I quickly realized how many buckets of water are needed for a family, how heavy it is to carry those, and what a waste of time it is!
2. Why hassle with a collective system, if you can do self-supply. The village also used to have a piped water supply during the Soviet times. But as the Soviet Union collapsed, also this water system collapsed, with some corroding water towers as evidence of this past. People simply prefer to use the wells, which only need to be managed among the two or three neighbours that share it. The only management that is really needed there is an occasional replacement of a bucket or windlass, and that is easily arranged between the neighbours. I didn’t do a full survey, but I estimate that only 10% of the wells were in disuse; and most of the ones that were in use, looked very well maintained and clean. Asking one of the neighbours whether they wouldn’t prefer to have a yard tap from a piped scheme, the answer was a clear no. She preferred the free and easy management of the well over the costly and potentially unreliable supply to the home, even if that meant going and fetching it and drinking unsafe water.
3. There is no demand for safe water. Even though the wells have a protective apron, they are likely contaminated. One reason for the contamination is my brother’s overflowing latrine within 13 meters of the well (something I suggested him to address of course). In addition, the water is probably contaminated from the handling of the buckets and windlass. This being an area of intensive agriculture, there are probably also high levels of nutrients and agro-chemicals in the water. But the users are not concerned about that. Most drink directly from the well. Few take the hassle of boiling the water, something I can now understand. Being aware of the water quality risks, we started boiling the water for the family. But in the hot summer this quickly proved completely undoable. The volumes one needs to boil (and then let cool down) are just too high to keep up with the thirst. Instead, we decided just to go to the village shop and buy bottled water. To our surprise all the village shops only sold sparkling bottled water. Still bottled water had to be specially ordered! When villagers decide to spend money on bottled water, they want something special: sparkling water (or coke or beer). They would not spend money on bottled still water, that they can also get from a well.
Of course, none of these insights is new. The myth of demand for safe water has been dismantled and discussed by others, but the fact that only sparkling water was available – combined with the completely hassle of boiling water – revealed to me how low the demand for safe water really was in this place. Others have written on the potential and relative sustainability of self-supply, but the extent to which all these wells were so nicely maintained really impressed me. But, living such a water situation brings home these insights in a much more direct way than any paper or blog post can do.
I wish you all a very good holiday, with a supply of safe water 24 hours per day, and hopefully lessons to share from wherever you spent your holidays!