“We won’t have water for two days, starting tomorrow at nine o’clock AM.”
My finger nearly became a part of the onion that I was cutting, as my knife dropped at the news that I had overheard.
“What? No running water for two whole days?” exclaimed another intern.
A thousand thoughts raced across the forefront of my mind. Since our apartment did not have a water tank for excess water storage, we would have absolutely no water to supply our needs. How would I shower? How would I clean my growing pile of laundry? How would I live with twelve people, all limited to a single flush for each of the three toilets in the apartment? Because let’s be real, we were all on Pepto Bismol.
My qualms were quickly reassured with another claim of the night: that there would be running water in the office, as the cut only affected the district that we lived in. It was going to be alright– I could have my toothbrush in tow to the office, and have pearly whites after a mysterious bathroom break.
The next morning, I filled up my water bottle with the last remaining bits of filtered water that my apartment would spit out for me for the next 36 hours. As I stepped into the office kitchen later that morning to stow away my lunch, my eyes feasted on an unusual array of colors. The floor was covered with multicolored buckets filled with water. I nervously glanced at the microwave clock. It was 8:04 AM.
I arrived to my desk listening to the fear that was settling into panic– the district that our office was in, would be affected by the water cut as well. No running water here, either. To be honest, I freaked out a little bit. How does one survive without running water? What do you do when your back up for running water needs to be backed up?
As the clock approached nine, so did my uneasiness. I had never tackled the issue of water cuts. The closest thing I could relate to was electricity cuts at my parents’ childhood homes in India, which was a completely different game. At those routine 9 PM power cuts, I was never worried about being dehydrated or even unclean.
But I began to ponder about my work with MEDLIFE and the communities that we served. A lot of the homes do not have running water, nonetheless access to it at all. I thought back to the community meeting that I had attended just that previous Friday with SeÃ±or Carlos and the rest of the Volunteer Affairs interns. On our trek down to the city center, he pointed out a portion of the area that was cloaked in darkness, as opposed to the gridded lights that illuminated the outskirts of Lima. He explained to us that this area was documented as an illegal settlement, as those who lived there did not have land titles to claim it as their own. Those settlers had moved to Lima nearly a year ago, and had to scavenge for water and pay spiked rates for electricity.
More often than not, the water that the people in pueblos jovenes (“shantytowns”) receive are stored in old chemical waste containers because it’s a cheaper alternative to the larger water tanks that are clean. This one tank of water is used for a family to cook, do laundry, bathe, and aid in personal hygiene. As the water tanks sit outside of homes with a flimsy tarp as a cover, they become prone to the bacteria that resides in the air. Burning garbage, human excrement, dog excrement, dirty diapers, and dirt all culminate into the air and rise to water-borne illnesses. I bore witness to this fact at a patient follow-up visit during hour 25 in my drought with water.
I accompanied one of our field nurses, Janet, to a women’s health clinic in JesÃºs MarÃa. Any patients that had irregular breast exams or pap smear results at the mobile clinic were brought to that clinic for their next round of care. I sat in the room, quietly listening to the initial consultation, trying to understand each patient’s condition. After a few minutes of formalities and chatter, a young woman in her mid-twenties stepped into the room. We were told by the doctor that her irregular pap smear results were caused by a parasitic infection near the opening of her cervix, which had caused a large open wound and a source of great discomfort. The likely cause? Some form of water intake, most likely through washing of the body. Though her wound was cauterized and closed, it didn’t solve the issue at hand– access to clean and safe water.
As I came upon hour thirty of my drought with water, I had already stopped at two bodegas, or convenience stores, to find no bottled water available for purchase. I also learned that the water cut had happened in all of the areas but the extremely wealthy ones. Though it was due to maintenance, we all joked that the Miraflores district paid the water company, Sedapal, from cutting the water in their district. Unfortunately, the role that money plays in accessing privilege is a reality for much of the world, Lima included.
I’m happy to announce that I survived the thirty-six hour run without running water. Looking back at it, I am a little embarrassed at my fears and anxieties about it. Putting your life in perspective to the conditions in the world is humbling, sparking a renewed sense of appreciation. The unknown is always intimidating and a bit scary, but can be morphed into a challenge for bettering yourself. My time in Lima has been incredibly challenging, but working through those hurdles has brought an immeasurable amount of growth and reward. My point: always remember to check your privilege, and keep the thirst for life alive!