My host sisters are very excited today. We’ve just gotten news that the town’s water system is getting fixed. The system has been down for over a week now, but within the next few hours there should be water coming out of the tap in our compound again. In Canada, we have faucets and toilets in every house, water fountains in every public space, and irrigation systems for every industrial farm; but here it is not so common to have running water. The fact that our household has a private source of running water is a mark of my family’s relative wealth.
Yesterday, when we went down to the public well to collect water in jerry cans, I had my first real slap-in-the-face confrontation with privilege. As I walked down the hill with Irene, Fiona, and little Peter, I immediately spotted the well – not because of any special signs, but because of all the people standing around with empty jugs. When we got closer, I watched women and children leaning out over the pool of murky white water, and was disgusted. Disgusted to think that anyone would drink that water, and disgusted with myself for judging people who probably have no other choice. Less than a metre away, a broken water pump seemed to say, “NGO XYZ cares about you and your access to clean water… sort of… but not really.”
I felt so lucky, knowing that the water we were collecting would only be used to wash clothes, since we still had some clean water stored up for cooking and drinking. I have the privilege to choose to never drink water from a well like that one. Being aware of this privilege filled me with a queasy combination of gratitude and sadness. The United Nations says that, “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights”. But that doesn’t mean that everyone actually has access to safe water.
I know that the easy solutions – like installing another water pump or distributing LifeStraws – wouldn’t solve much, because the real problem comes from much larger constraints in political, financial, infrastructural and social systems. However that doesn’t dampen my fairy-tale urge to snap my fingers and have the world’s problems magically disappear. Being powerless sucks.
On a lighter note, if you see me randomly kissing water fountains when I get home, you’ll know why…
For anyone who’s interested in learning more, I’m going to pull a cheap move: Go check out EWB’s work on Water and Sanitation in Malawi at the EWB Website. Or check out some of my friends’ blogs here.