The Life Molecule

Molecules of liquid dihydrogen oxide make up roughly three-quarters of every human baby. Traveling around the world you might hear this ‘life molecule’ referred to as tubig, nsuo, or wata. In my childhood home, the H2O flowing through our pipes was known best as “water.”

And water is life.

It sits on the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Yet, one out of eight people lacks access to clean water. In developing countries, women walk an average of 3.7 miles each day to get water. And the world’s poorest often survive on less than 5 gallons of water per day.1

However when your showerhead can gush warm water until your fingers turn to prunes, this distant and faceless problem is easily carried out of mind. It flows down the drain along with the estimated 100 gallons of water that Americans consume each day.1

Although I am entirely guilty of taking countless long, hot showers, access to water is no longer a faceless issue in my life. In July of 2014, I joined the U.S. Peace Corps and moved to the Philippines as a volunteer. Now, roughly one year later, I am intimately aware of the problems that come from both too much and too little water.

Mainit Falls, Philippines
Mainit Falls, Philippines

Tubig [too-big], Tagalog language, Philippines

May marks the tail end of the dry season here. Many mornings turning the knob of the sink faucet does little to clean one’s hands, much better to fill the bucket the evening before. Our drinking water comes from a 12-stage water filter, an expensive investment, but now we can drink from the home rather than frequenting the local AquaBest for a jug of mineral water. However on this particular night the tap is open, but the one-liter plastic coke bottle sitting under its spout still remains empty. We have 22 such bottles in total that we refill whenever possible, although if the water does not return later tonight we will be down to 6 liters of drinking water for tomorrow. Six liters, five people, and 91 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily, the water has returned every night thus far.

At midnight when I awoke to use the CR (for comfort room), as bathrooms are called here, I saw my Lola Daisy standing by the sink refilling each of the bottles. She was stretching as she waited, both to stay fit and to stay awake.

Our coke bottles of purified drinking water and the water filter shown top right
Our coke bottles of purified drinking water and the water filter shown top right

My water access is privileged compared to Sarah Meyers, representing the Peace Corps in Ghana, or Asha Phadke, Peace Corps Jamaica. Even other regions of the Philippines face more dire circumstances than me. In Romblon, the capital of my province, but a much smaller island than my own, Peace Corps volunteer Diana Ashbaugh must wake up at 5am each summer morning to fill her buckets with water. Although water is piped directly into her home, during the summer months it runs for only about one hour every day and so Diana’s two buckets must provide for her showering and washing until 4am the next day.

Forty six percent of people worldwide do not have water piped into their homes.1

Ghana, photo credit: S Meyers
Ghana, photo credit: S Meyers

Nsuo [en-sue-oh], Twi language, Ghana

“I get my water from a borehole near my house,” reported Sarah. Moving from South Carolina to Ghana, Sarah now falls within this 46 percent. “I take bucket baths and use about two liters each time.” In a given day Sarah may use as little as a single gallon or as much as five gallons when she needs to wash her clothes. “The borehole that I use is seasonal and I have to go to a different, further one during the dry season.” During the rainy season, local waterfalls are a national treasure, however risk from waterborne pathogens means that swimming in many falls is off limits to Peace Corps volunteers.

Although water is a precious commodity, it is also a means for celebration. Local tradition includes throwing water on a birthday celebrant throughout the day, culminating in a huge, final drenching. “I just had my birthday and got pounded [with water] for about ten minutes and then we had a dance party!” It is through the strength and support of Sarah’s community that families are able to get by in the hottest and driest months.

Wata [waah-ta], Patois language, Jamaica

Visitor: “I noticed that people used the resources very differently in Asha’s community. I mostly noticed the way they used water. Unlike in the United States they all saved water and only used what they needed. Boiling rain water to drink it and flushing the toilet by yourself are definitely things we don’t come across every day [in the United States].”

Asha: “Where I live now, running water is not a given. Rainwater is harvested, and then pumped through the house if that is afforded. The pressure is slow, and often doesn’t reach a second story or showerhead, let alone a toilet. There are no leaky pipes—because the water would run out if that were to happen. The toilet is flushed with a bucket of water, using way less than the toilet where I come from. Here we can see the finite amount of water we have until the next rain.”

Approximately 70 percent of worldwide water demand is used for agriculture. Of this amount more than half is lost due to leaky or inefficient irrigation systems.2

The start of the typhoon rain outside my host family's house.
The start of the typhoon rain outside my host family’s house, Philippines.

Tubig [too-big], Tagalog language, Philippines

Issued by PAGASA (the Philippine Weather Bureau) at 5:00 am, Saturday, 06 December 2014: “Typhoon RUBY continues to threaten Samar provinces while maintaining its course. Maximum sustained winds of 195km near the center and gustiness of up to 230kph”

“Residents of low lying and mountainous areas are alerted against flashfloods and landslides. Likewise, those living along the coast are warned on the occurrence of big waves associated with storm surge which may reach up to 4.5 meters.”

Within 48hrs this super-typhoon was predicted to make landfall within my province. Evacuation is not an option. As the ocean waters become rough, boat trips into and out of the province stop running. “Where will you go?!” demanded a flurry of emails from my family and friends in the United States.

Where do all the people living in small island communities go during these storms? People whose entire families, homes, and livelihoods are here in this place. The only feasible option is to find a safe structure and wait. My host family moved to the large church building in town with other members of their parish. Others gathered in schools or at the provincial hospital. As Peace Corps Volunteers we consolidated to a 3-story hotel designated as our safe point.

Prior to Super-Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, the term “storm surge” was unknown to many Filipino families. Typhoons are a part of Filipino culture, a routine. However as sea levels rise and ocean waters warm, super-typhoons like Haiyan will become more frequent. This time the province of Romblon was lucky; the path of Typhoon Ruby strayed north and missed our islands. As a volunteer in the Philippines, I still have one more season of typhoons in my future. One season, unlike my host brother Andrew Famero, who has already experienced 40 seasons and hopes that his two young daughters Andrea and Miel will be able to continue to call this place home despite many more typhoons in the future.

Water [waah-ter], English language, United States

One year prior to enlisting in the Peace Corps, I enrolled in an Environmental Studies Master’s program at the College of Charleston. “Who’s teaching Earth Systems Science spring semester?” I inquired before committing myself to the course.

“Someone new.” It was a gamble, but the course syllabus sparked my interest so on January 6, 2014 I found myself in room 200 of the Sciences & Mathematics Building waiting for a lecture on the Hydrosphere and Modeling. Little did I know that course would enlighten my understanding of water as dramatically as living in the Philippines.

Worldwide water may be drawn from wells accessing groundwater (water which sits below the Earth’s surface submersing the layers of sand and rock) or it can be taken from surface water such as rivers, lakes, or glacial melt, or finally ocean water may be desalinated for use. Water crisis occurs when overuse of groundwater lowers the water table, requiring continuously deeper wells or when lakes and rivers run dry from exhaustive use.

Compounding this problem is the still high cost of desalination. Some solutions include rainwater retention, recycling wastewater, and a collaborative effort toward more efficient water consumption. In Albuquerque, New Mexico water-conscious homeowners utilize low-flow toilets and drip irrigation as part of a citywide effort that reduced water use from an average of 140 gallons per day to 80.1

Why conserve water? If you pay your water bill each month, is that not enough? Will using low-flow fixtures really mean that there is more water in the well when that poor woman has put in her daily 3.7-mile journey?

We live in a global community and although you may have never met that woman, your fate and hers are tied to the same planet, the same hydrosphere of water that has existed since the dinosaurs walked the Earth, no more no less. Human actions have dramatically altered the distribution of water throughout the world. When your water consumption depletes local water resources faster than they can be replenished habitats are lost and animals are threatened, eventually placing the health of ecosystems – even ourselves – at risk. Worldwide droughts and floods may become more and more frequent.

Water is life. Our planet contains enough water to support our growing population if we are efficient and conscientious in our use. Western cities could learn from the wisdom of developing communities in reducing daily water consumption.

At what point of a water crisis would a bucket bath fall within your comfort zone? Find out where your water comes from before it flows out of your showerhead.

A community water pump on Banton Island in Romblon, Philippines. In the back a Filipino girl just finished her bath.
A community water pump on Banton Island in Romblon, Philippines. In the back a Filipino girl brushing her hair after her bucket bath.

References and Acknowledgements:

  1.  “Water: Our Thirsty World.” National Geographic Magazine. April 2010.
  2.  “Water Scarcity.” World Wildlife Fund. 2015. Washington, DC. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/water-scarcity.

Many thanks to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who shared their experiences:

More information can be found on the National Geographic website at: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/

Additional information on Hydrology and Earth Systems Science can be found at the follow link to Dr. Julie Ferguson’s lectures from the University of California Irvine:

Anthropogenic Climate Change: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxLtbWHeqy4

Freshwater: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seq-Wuxwba8

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “The Life Molecule”

  1. Brian, Peace Corps Zambia: “My water situation seems really similar to Sarah’s (except that I get mine from a well instead of a borehole). Even the birthday tradition is the same. I’m really lucky because my well is only 200 meters from my hut. Some volunteers get theirs from wells 2-3 km away.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s