Friday, October 15, 2010

Ode to the PILA

Today is world Blog Action Day, an annual event calling upon all bloggers to draw awareness to an important global issue.  This year’s topic is the global crisis of WATER.  In honor of this event, my post for today is a story based on my own experience and challenges with water in the developing world. 

"Ode to the PILA"

I am lucky to have had the opportunity to live in a number of developing countries in Latin America.  My longest assignment abroad was serving two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the western rural highlands of Honduras.  Going in, I told myself that one of the primary reasons I wanted to join the Peace Corps was so that I would have an experience to remind me of what was really important in life.  I expected to get a good schooling into grass roots development, community values and traditions, and that is what I got.  But I also discovered many things I had not expected, including learning to value water and to deeply appreciate the PILA (pronounced pe-la).

What is a PILA?

On the surface, the PILA is pretty basic:  it’s a rectangular cement block with a cement sink on one side and it is used to store water.  In reality, it is oh so much more than that. The PILA is used to wash everything from clothes, dishes, oneself, teeth, babies, and food to freshly slaughtered un-plucked chickens.  It can easily be called the most important asset of one’s household in the developing world.

There are only two rules for the PILA:  keep it clean and keep it full. 

Nearly every single household in Central America, even those in the wealthiest of the wealthiest neighborhoods, have a PILA. Everyone needs to store water in a PILA because there is never a guarantee that you will get water out of the tap. 

By “get water,” what I mean is that for an infinite number of reasons from local supply and demand issues to broken water systems, local rationing, weather and corrupt local leaders, you never know for certain if when you turn on the tap you will be blessed with free-flowing, thirst-quenching water or instead with the extremely loud spitting and gurgling sounds of empty pipes.

By “get water,” I also want to convey the idea that even though the United Nations declared access to clean water and sanitation a human right this past July (with many developed nations, including the USA, abstaining from the vote), water is far from a given.  

The PILA serves as a daily reminder that water cannot be taken for granted. Here in the US, it’s really no wonder that we take water for granted. It pours freely (and relatively cleanly) from our faucets at any temperature we desire at any time of day.  The only thing most of us have to do to get water is pay our bills and walk to one of a handful of spouts found in any house. But, in most of the developing world, water means WORK, as in hardcore manual labor, and it means EFFORT, as in I cannot take this for granted because I have to consciously think or worry about procuring it every. single. day.

My most vivid encounter and glaringly conscious awakening to the power of the PILA and water came in the middle of the night towards the beginning of my Peace Corps service. I had spent that evening eating pupusas de chicharrón (sort of like pork quesadillas but much tastier) and drinking warm sweetened milk straight from my land lord's cow.  Yumeelicious! They both tasted like heaven!  But, as much as I had thought my body and immune system had already adjusted to life in a developing country, my sense of taste (which is supposed to protect us from poison) and even my own sense of sight (I had witnessed the not-so-hygienic cow milking process) had deceived me. I'll never know if it was the cow or the pig that did it but I'll never forget either.

I became violently, pero violently, ill, so much so that there came a point during the night that I actually wondered if I would make it through to the next day.  Too scared, stubborn, embarrassed or short-sighted to ask for help in the middle of the night since the closest (developing world rural) hospital was more than an hour away over a dirt road and I had only just arrived in site and I had no means of my own transportation and hitch hiking a ride out of town was hard enough during the day, and, and, and.. I decided to trust in the lessons learned over three months of intensive training and drilling by Peace Corps on how to protect oneself in exactly such a circumstance. 

With my trusty book “Where There is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook” at hand (designed to scare every PCV into thinking a mosquito bite is an outbreak of Rubella) and the Peace Corps issued briefcase full of rehydration salts and other meds, I resigned to nurse myself through the night until sunrise when I could seek shame-free help.

Things were going ok (not really) until about 1 am when I went for another trip to my own empty outdoor PILA. Upon turning on the faucet, I became eye openingly aware in my 104 fever induced stupor that @#$?@!# DIOS MIO: SE FUE EL AGUA - which can be literally translated in to OH MY !@!?@#! GOD: THE WATER LEFT.  I think there is a reason the passivity of the Spanish language is so helpful for life in the developing world.  Why place blame when circumstances are sometimes so unbearably desperate?  I had turned on the faucet and all I got were loud grumblings screaming the titillating taunt, “I’m in here but you can’t have me!”

As you can see, I survived. A nearby full PILA came to the rescue because even though THE WATER LEFT that night, someone had long before thought of constructing a cement basin to store water and my neighbors already knew very well the value of a full PILA.  Making a much longer story much shorter, the main message I want to convey from sharing this experience is the value of water and why having access to it means more than many of us are aware.

Over the remaining time in service, water and the PILA moved to the forefront of my thoughts and daily planning of activities. Whether I was laboring to wash my own clothes, shivering from taking ice cold bucket baths or showers, preplanning when to boil water to drink or to add hot water to the bucket baths, water issues had become a challenge and it was no longer something that could be taken for granted.

I came to understand first hand why water is an issue of women’s rights.  When you wash clothes in most villages in Latin America, a task taken on mostly by women, you do not get to throw your laundry in the washer and walk away. You have to manually labor and lean for hours on end to scrub and wring out everything by hand at a PILA. How can women contribute as much to their communities if they have to spend half the day laboring over a wash bin and filling/cleaning PILAS?

I heard of cases of corruption, where local leaders had diverted water resources away from people most in need in order to protect their own farming interests.  (On a side note, just to mention corruption and resources, for about six months, the LIGHT LEFT TOO.  My town’s electricity would flicker at half volume or not at all in the evenings and rumor had it that it was because some nearby mayor, widely known to be an alcoholic, had bet and lost one of the region’s transformers in a poker game.)

Water safety is another issue entirely.  PILA water is undrinkable and for cleaning purposes only. Water flowing out of the tap may have looked safe, but even some locals did not drink directly from the tap without boiling it first because it was not clean.  In fact, the UN estimates that 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation – that’s 40% of all of mankind.  Let me assure you that the definition for “basic sanitation” is far below US standards, meaning many more than 40% cope with water sanitation and consequent diseases. A couple other Peace Corps friends of mine lived at the base of a mountain where the water flowing in their pipes had already passed through numerous villages on the way down from the source.  Both of them suffered throughout their service with horrible medical problems, including Rubella.

When I listen to the stories of my friends that have lived in Africa, I realize that my experience in Honduras was akin to staying in a luxury hotel.  Water standards in Honduras may have been sub-par compared to the US, but Africa’s water worries are beyond desperate.  The most important point of all is considering that even though we do not face many of these issues (yet) in the US, these problems still deeply affect us on many levels.

It’s because of these concerns that CHANGE.ORG has organized world blogging action day to focus on water. There are actions we can all take that go beyond blogging.  Here are a few other blog posts written in honor of this day with some ideas:
Interestingly enough, in Spanish, the word PILA has another meaning:  BATTERY.  I only realized this coincidence while writing this blog post.   Perhaps it is not a coincidence at all and someone consciously chose to name a cement water storage tank after a battery because they are sort of the same thing. The PILA stores power.

Here are a few other under published statistics related to water and the looming crisis:
  • Water as a Human Right: In July, the United Nations declared access to clean water and sanitation a human right. More Info » 
  • Women: In Africa, women are predominantly responsible for collecting water. They walk over 40 BILLION hours each year carrying cisterns weighing up to 40 pounds to gather water for their community, which is usually still not safe to drink. More Info » 
  • Children: Every week, nearly 38,000 children under the age of 5 die from unsafe drinking water and unhygienic living conditions. More Info » 
  • Polluted Oceans: Not only is pollution bad for the environment, it’s also expensive! Death and disease caused by polluted coastal waters costs the global economy $12.8 billion a year. More Info » 
  • Uninhabitable Rivers: Today, 40% of America’s rivers and 46% of America’s lakes are too polluted for fishing, swimming, or aquatic life. That’s not surprising considering the fact that 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, storm water, and industrial waste are discharged into US waters annually. More Info » 
  • Food Footprint: Do you know the water footprint of your food? For example, 75 liters of water are required to make a glass of beer and 15,500 liters to make a kilogram of beef. More Info » 
  • Water Wars: Many scholar, researchers and political analysts attribute the conflict in Darfur at least in part to lack of access to water. In fact, a report commissioned by the UN Development Program found that in the 21st century, water scarcity will become one of the leading causes of conflict in Africa. More Info » 
  • Water & Poverty: A lack of water contributes to poverty, with parents and children too ill or too busy collecting water to go to school and work. Water poverty also undermines progress poor countries are making on health - with half of hospital beds taken by people suffering with diarrhoea and dysentery. More Info » 
  • Technology Footprint: On an average day, 500 billion liters of water travel through US power plants to power all the technology that we use every day. For example, that shiny new iPhone in your pocket requires half a liter of water to charge. That may not seem like much, but with approximately 6.4 million active iPhones in the US, that’s 3.2 million liters to charge those alone. More Info » 
  • Bottled Water: Even though people in the US have access to clean water from their taps, they drink an average of 200 bottles of water per person each year. Over 17 million barrels of oil are needed to manufacture those water bottles, 86 percent of which will never be recycled. More Info » 
  • Farmers vs. Animals: As water becomes scarcer in Africa, farmers not only compete with each other but also with other animals, including elephants. Forced into close contact with farmers, elephants destroy crops and wreak havoc on agriculture, causing farmers in turn to resort to violence in order to protect their crops and water sources. More Info » 
  • Fashion Footprint: That cotton t-shirt you’re wearing right now took 400 gallons of water to produce, and your jeans required an extra 1800 gallons. Not wearing cotton? The dyes and synthetic fibers used to make your clothes create waste that’s among the many contributors to water pollution. More Info » 
  • Water Celebrities: A number of celebrities have taken up the cause of water and water rights, including Matt Damon , Adrian Grenier , Leonardo DiCaprio , and Will & Jada Smith.

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