Thursday, September 26, 2013

Reflections upon returning

One revelation I've had since I've returned from Madagascar concerns water. Madagascar was not my first trip to a developing country, so I was fully aware that indoor plumbing and proper sanitation are not universal. Previous experiences had already made me very thankful and appreciative of toilets and having safe drinking water. But traveling to Madagascar and living at Berenty during the driest part of the year made me appreciate water in yet another way.
Mandare River during dry season

Water in Berenty comes from the nearby Mandare River. It's completely untreated when it comes to us, and it's the same water that people all along the river swim in, bathe in, wash their clothes in, wash their zebu with (a zebu is a type of cow), and etc. Where the researchers stay at Berenty, water is physically brought to us by a tractor three times a day. It's dumped into a well, and that's our water. That's the (cold) water I showered in, washed my clothes in, used for cooking, and drank. I brought with me a UV water purifier called a Steripen (which I highly recommend) rather than purchase bottles upon bottles of water to bring to the field. I purified no more than 1 liter of water at a time for my drinking water to kill any Giadia or anything else lurking, and then I drank my water. I could see little specks of dirt at the bottom, and as the river got lower and lower, I could see substantially more specks of dirt in my water.
Well for researchers' camp

The fact that I showered and drank and cleaned and cooked with river water that was untreated didn't bother me. It was what everyone else was doing, and how much can a little dirt hurt? So the not-pristine water didn't seem like a big deal. What was really eye-opening was having limited water. Everyone at the researcher's camp had to share this water, and it only came at certain times during the day. It wasn't as though if you ran out of water you just called someone up and they brought you more. There were definitely times where I went to grab some water for my lunch or my dinner or whatever and nothing came out of the faucet. (Then it was a matter of eat bananas for breakfast, which I did quite a few times, or some other sort of food that didn't need to be cooked). I took very short showers and never really got my long, thick hair clean because it required too much water. The one time I properly shampooed and conditioned my hair and had a good shower at Berenty, we ran out of water that night. No flushing toilets, no water from the faucet to brush your teeth in the morning, etc. The water for the morning didn't come until ten am, and we left for the field long before that, so I always had to make sure I had a full water bottle for drinking and another bottle of water to brush my teeth with every night. Better safe than sorry.
Ambosary Village near Berenty Reserve

Sundays were the worst. The tourist part of the reserve has electricity all of the time. The researcher's section has electricity whenever the nearby sisal plantation has electricity, which means we lost it every night and we didn't have it at all on Sundays. This meant no shower, no flushing toilets, no water out of the faucets at all. It also meant I had to make sure I had enough batteries charged for my Steripen because if that pen died, I was out of luck. Sundays were the hardest day at camp for sure. It's not fun to come back from a day in the field all sweaty and dirty and not have a shower. I also am pretty sure we didn't get our usual water three times a day on Sundays. We managed by saving water from Saturday in buckets and pots and whatever we had available. And then if we needed more water, it came from whatever was left in the well and it came to us in buckets. Rationing water for Sundays was a must. I tried to have leftovers for lunch and then I went to the restaurant for dinner so that I could use my computer and charge my phone with the electricity there. It also meant I didn't have a pile of dirty dishes sitting around until whenever the water showed up on Monday.

I am really thankful of having water whenever I want it. It's such a simple thing, but making sure I had enough water and wasn't using too much was a real concern at Berenty. I can take a shower now and use enough water to get my hair clean without affecting whether or not people can boil water for their dinner. I can always have a glass of water here, which is amazing.
Lemur drinking from puddle

And I am fully aware that, while I may have had it bad compared to western standards or compared to the tourists at Berenty, I did not have it bad at all. Many people bring their clothes down to the river to wash. They bring water back up to their homes. They don't have any sort of water at their house from a faucet or a shower or whatever. Allocating and preparing water was stressful for me when I first arrived at Berenty, and I didn't have to walk down to a river and bring water back to my home. The amount of time and energy some people must devote simply to access and use water is incredible. It's easy to see why the government or the people of Madagascar can't or won't devote more time to conservation when something as crucial as access to water (not even treated or safe water mind you) is still a real problem in many areas.

As I was leaving, the water in the Mandare, already very low, was getting even lower. Saotra, my assistant, said that, in the more populated places along the river, people are going to have to start digging to get the water they need. The wet season is November and December, so everyone needs to last another month before there's any hope of the river growing. I can't imagine how difficult it could become those last days before the rain.

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