Tubig, nsuo, wata, water

By Sarah Jean Byce
March 22, 2016

It goes by different names: tubignsuowata. In my childhood home, the H2O flowing through our pipes was known best as “water.”

No matter what you call it or where in the world you are, water is life. Yet more than 780 million people lack access to clean water. In developing countries, women walk an average of 3.7 miles each day to get water. And some of the world’s poorest people survive on less than 5 gallons of water per day.

When your shower head gushes seemingly endless warm water, the water crisis can seem distant and faceless. After joining the Peace Corps and moving to the Philippines, I became intimately familiar with the true importance of water.

Our bottles of purified drinking water and the water filter, top right.
Our bottles of purified drinking water and the water filter, top right.

Tubig [too-big], Tagalog language, Philippines

May marks the end of the dry season here. Many mornings, turning the knob of the sink faucet does little to clean one’s hands. Our drinking water comes from a 12-stage water filter, an expensive investment that lets us drink from the tap rather buying a jug of mineral water. We have 22 bottles that we refill whenever possible. Tonight we’re low; if the water does not return later, we will be down to 6 liters of drinking water for tomorrow. Six liters of water for five people – and it’s 91 degrees Fahrenheit.

My water access is privileged compared to Sarah Meyers of Peace Corps Ghana or Jamaica Volunteer Asha Phadke. Even other regions of the Philippines face more dire circumstances than mine. In the capital of my province, Volunteer Diana Ashbaugh wakes up at 5 a.m. every summer day to fill her buckets with water. Although water is piped directly into her home, during the summer it runs for only about an hour every day; Diana’s two buckets must provide for her showering and washing until the next day.

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

Forty-six percent of people worldwide do not have water piped to their homes. Ghana Volunteer Sarah is one of the 46 percent.

Collecting water in Ghana. Photo credit: S Meyers
Collecting water in Ghana. Photo credit: S Meyers

“I get my water from a borehole near my house,” says Sarah. “I take bucket baths and use about two liters each time.” In a given day Sarah may use as little as a single gallon of water, 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, farther one during the dry season.”

Although water is a precious commodity, it is also a means for celebration. Local tradition in Ghana 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 shower head, 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.

A community water pump in the Philippines.
A community water pump in the Philippines.

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

One year before enlisting in the Peace Corps, I enrolled in an environmental studies master’s program. 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 that 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.

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 a woman has to make a 3.7-mile journey for drinking water?

We live in a global community. 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.

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 shower head.

Sarah Jean Byce

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