Monday, May 3, 2010

Reflecting on Clean Water

This whole episode has me reflecting on the water quality that we take for granted in the US. In India (where my family and I live frequently) urban areas generally have two plumbing systems:

1) city water, which is treated for drinking, and usually comes on for an hour or so early in the morning. One job of the average housewife is to leave the tap open at night with a large pan or bucket under it, and then wake up at 4:30 am or so to turn it off when the bucket is full. One gets accustomed to the sound of water suddenly ringing in a metal pail in the pre-dawn darkness.

2) raw water, which is only minimally treated. This water is used for showers, toilets, and laundry, and usually available all day in an apartment, but only because most urban buildings are outfitted with a large cement tank at ground level, a pump, and one or more big plastic tanks on the roof. Water comes on at odd times & fills the tank. It comes on less and less the longer it's been since the rainy season. Last summer, water shortages in Pune were dire, and raw water supplies needed to be supplemented by tanker-trucks.

I've helped lug water up several flights of stairs from a local outdoor community tap when the raw-water supply to the buildings fails. Let me tell you, when you're finished carrying water up four flights of stairs, you're pretty careful with how you use it.

It led me to wonder, while boiling our drinking water, what we'd do in a real crisis: say, if the water supply was cut off entirely for a week. We've got two supplies (Quabbin for drinking, and the emergency reservoirs to keep the system charged for fires) but only one set of pipes, which leaves householders over a barrel. I'd go down to the Charles with buckets, I suppose, and learn to tolerate the taste of chlorine.

What does this all have to do with walking and biking? Well, I hear a lot of people are wasting time and fuel driving all over creation looking for bottled water.

To get my clean water today, I walked from my bedroom to my kitchen, turned on a tap, filled a pasta pot, and boiled it. It's that easy. Why drive, when the water in your kitchen is nearly free?


Anonymous said...

I agree, the fact that people find boiling water too complicated blows my mind. I understand special cases, such as dorm rooms with no access to stoves (and where electrical cooking items are banned), but besides that, there's no excuse not to boil. It saddens me that the bottled water industry has created a public that is so dependent on them. 20 years ago, nobody would have run out to get bottled water.

Even worse, there was an article in the globe today featuring interviews with people who weren't showering or washing plates due to "dirty" water. I haven't lived in India, but I did live in South America, and while you don't drink the tap water (without boiling), you obviously use it to bathe, brush teeth and wash dishes.

I assume these people have gone swimming in a lake or river, and did not die in doing so. They probably swallowed their fair share of lake water (I know I have).

Steve R said...

It's an interesting illustration of how consumerism and resource consumption are intertwined. If a problem (questionable water quality) has to be solved by buying a product (bottled water), it inevitably involves another trip by car. So the consumerist solution magnifies resource use exponentially: bottles had to be manufactured & shipped, a bottling plant powered, full bottles distributed to warehouses and stores, and then transported from store to home by car. The alternative (boiling) uses resources, but resources whose infrastructure is already in place & useful for other purposes. The only purpose the bottled water industry serves is its own profit.

Steve R said...

I do wonder whether the "dirty water" perception was unduly magnified by the MWRA's idiotic advice to rinse plates in a chlorine solution after washing them. There's no benefit to sterilizing your dinnerware. All you need to do is let them air dry. That kind of bizarre emphasis on sterilization will just lead people to over-react and get into shouting matches over water at BJ's.

(The whole idea of the MWRA giving public health advice is absurd anyway. The MWRA should stop at giving the boil order, and then refer people to the public health dept. for advice on how to maintain hygiene during a boil order.)

MamaVee said...

Yes yes yes!

I am so confused by the people using paper plates and not doing dishes or even laundry. I keep telling my Indian Banana leaf story. If I can spend a month eating food on banana leaves that have been sprinkled with "bad water" that I wiped dry before my food came and lived to tell the tale, I think we can survive a few days of what my son has been calling "pond water". In fact I drank water from my Chennai apartment's filter and my friend and I were never sure if it really worked. the green light went on- so it must be right?

I won't say I am pure- I did get a jug of water. Mainly b/c we were having a birthday party in a gym on sunday and I wanted to make sure we had enough to drink in case the kids got hot. But there wasn't any in the store. And it's sad that moment of "omg resources are low I must get resources!" and I had a moment of freak out in the parking lot when I saw people coming out carts filled with water.

But then my brain turned back on and I said " wait, I HAVE water running from my facets. We can boil it just fine. The roads are working so more bottled water will be shipped to the store if I need it Monday. I'll be fine."

Now we gets to flush water for 15- 30 minutes. I said to a friend that this whole thing hasn't taught us much about how important water is in a Let's take care of it way- it's taught us that we REQUIRE bottled water to survive. When we need to be weaning off the bottled water actually.

Steve R said...

I'm sure my friends in India (sharp businessmen, all) will enjoy hearing stories about how Americans are so rich that when water is still plentiful but needs to be boiled for drinking, they'd rather drive an hour to buy bottled water.