Dispatch from Ethiopia, Part III: Water in Another World

For those of us who are wanderlusters at heart, there is a persistent internal voice that whispers promises of something more: more than the cubicle in which we dwell, more than the paycheck we receive for it, more than the grind most of us resign ourselves to as a means to an end. But what do you do when the means come up woefully short of the end you truly desire?
The little kids in the neighborhood get excited every time they see Paul.
It’s one of his daily joys. Contributed photo.
Meet Paul Voigt, a midwest native and communications professional who began scaling the corporate ladder, and realized it was time to take the path less traveled instead. Paul has graciously agreed to guest blog periodically, sharing his experiences with us from his new home, in Ethiopia. (Thank you, Paul!) This is the third installment of his story, sent from Ethiopia. 

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I never used to think about water. Now I think about it every day. Since I began living in Ethiopia, I’m conscious of how vital it is and how scarce it can be. When I return to the U.S., I won’t ever be able to take abundant and reliable water for granted again.

Water is life. A healthy human can survive up to two months without food but only a few days without water. Water covers 71% of the earth’s surface, but 97% of that is undrinkable salt water. Of the 3% that is fresh water, only .5% is available for the survival of every plant, animal, and person. That almost seems impossible.

U.S. consumption of this precious resource is astounding:
We use more water in one day – more than 400 billion gallons – than we use oil in one year.
Daily indoor per capita water use is 69.3 gallons.
Annual household total water use averages 127,400 gallons.

Safe and available water In the developing world is a matter of life and death:
More than one billion people, about 17% of the world’s population, routinely drink unhealthy water.
80% of diseases in developing countries are associated with water, leading to 5 million deaths a year.

I’m lucky. My little town in the Ethiopian highlands has good water. That is, when it’s available. It’s clear, fresh-tasting, and so far germ-free. Bacteria in water can lead to the dreaded typhoid fever which has invaded the intestinal territory of many Peace Corps volunteers. My compound is lucky to have an outdoor water tap that everyone shares. Many people in town still have to walk to fetch their water in yellow jerry cans from one of the water stations scattered around town or from questionable streams.

When water is available, women and children line up with their jerry cans at
water stations like this. Photo by Paul Voigt.

Everyone owns at least one jerry can. Families have more. Jerry cans are former plastic vegetable oil containers that work perfectly for water storage after the oil is gone. You can use the handle to carry the container, or wrap a rag around the handle and haul it over your back like most women and children do. The jerry can holds 20 liters of water which is quite heavy. Women spend most of their lives lugging water over their backs resulting in a permanent stoop in old age.

The jerry can: official water container of Ethiopia.
Photo by Paul Voigt.

I have fond memories of going to the kitchen and turning on the water and also starting the day with a 10-minute warm shower. Water was always there. It isn’t always available in my town. I’ve gone a week without access to water. When it comes, everyone in my compound rushes to the tap to fill their containers. I fill a 20-liter bucket for my weekly laundry and then a few plastic two-liter bottles for drinking and washing up. So far I’ve never run out of water, but I never waste a drop.

Now that I use about 10 gallons of water per week, my former water usage seems extravagant. In the U.S., the average person goes through 69 gallons of water each day in the form of showers/baths, clothes washing, toilet flushing, and other uses. That means I now use the same amount of water in seven weeks that the average person in the U.S. uses in one day. An American averages 18.5 gallons of water each day just flushing the toilet. That’s twice as much water as I use in an entire week.

Paul’s hole-in-the-ground toilet. Zero gallons of water used.
Photo by Paul Voigt.

A typical washing machine uses 40 gallons of water for one load. I wash a week’s worth of laundry with 20 liters of water which is a little more than 5 gallons. That includes two or three shirts, two t-shirts, two pairs of pants, three pairs of underwear, my sleepwear, two pairs of socks, one towel, and a sleeping bag liner. Not bad. During the rainy season (called krempt) from June through August, it rains so hard I can hold my laundry bucket under the eave of my house and collect 20 liters in a couple minutes as it pours off the roof. Using rain water for laundry reduces the amount of water I need to get from the tap. For three months the sky provides potential laundry water every day.

Here, Paul is about halfway through his weekly laundry. He uses one of the 20-liter
buckets filled with water. One is for washing, the other is for rinsing.
 Contributed photo.

Since showers don’t exist in most Ethiopian homes, my fellow volunteers eventually perfect the art of bucket bathing after a few days of trial and error. Most people find that washing one body part at a time works best. I can get the job done with a 2-liter bottle of water (half a gallon) once or twice a week. The rest of the week I wash my face and hair in the morning with a small pitcher of water. One average bath in the U.S. uses 30-50 gallons (three to five times more water than I use in one week), while one average shower uses 15-25 gallons (around twice as much water as I use in one week). During krempt, I’ve taken advantage of the heavy night rain off the roof to sneak an outdoor shower under the cover of darkness. Great water pressure, unlimited water. Nature’s gift to the African bather.

Paul says he can take a decent bucket bath with 2 liters of water, a small pitcher,
and a plastic basin. Contributed photo.

Have you thought about water today? If not, consider yourself lucky. More than a billion people think about it every day.
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Water: What Can You Do? 


You can conserve water by making small changes to your everyday habits. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration offer the following tips to “save and protect this vital essence of life.” These tips are reprinted here with permission from the FSPA.

1. Turn the water off while you brush your teeth.
2. Take short showers. Turn the water off while you lather up with soap.
3. Fix leaky faucets and running toilets.
4. Run your washing machine and dishwasher only when they are full.
5. Use efficient shower heads and low-flow attachments.
6. Buy energy efficient washing machines, dishwashers and other appliances. Buy low-flow toilets.
7. For your yard, mulch flowers and gardens to keep moisture in the soil.
8. If watering the lawn, water in the early morning or in the evening.
9. Use rain barrels to collect rain for watering plants, gardens and lawns.
10. Plant a rain garden in your yard, it absorbs water and filters pollutants before they end up in the rivers.

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Paul Voigt was a corporate communications writer and freelance copywriter in a former life. He gave up pop culture, Midwest winters and softball to serve for two years as an English teacher with the U.S. Peace Corps in Shambu, Ethiopia. Paul is currently helping to raise funds for early grade reading centers in Ethiopian communities. If you are interested in helping them reach their goal, visit: https://www.booksforafrica.org/donate/to-project.html. Locate Ethiopia on the right-hand side bar, and scroll down to “Early Grade Reading Centers (Jennifer Miller) – Ethiopia. Click to donate.
Look for additional updates from Paul Voigt in the near future. You can also send him your well wishes by leaving a comment here. 
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Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.blogspot.com.
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