Without water we are nothing. Even an emperor, denied water, would swiftly turn to dust. Water is the real monarch and we are all its slaves. – Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence
I’ve spent the last nine months living in the city of Nagpur in the state of Maharashtra, India as a Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholar. I’m here to research the water quality differences between discontinuous water supply (known in technical jargon as intermittent) versus continuous water supply (known, in India, as 24x7). While my research here has been very rewarding and will help me towards my PhD, it is the experience of living with intermittent water supply rather than just studying it from a distance that has struck me. My experience has reminded me, once again, that we should never confuse an appreciation of the facts surrounding sub-standard access to water and the actual realities of living with such.
Collecting a water sample during the monsoon rains.
In the United States we live with such exemplary public utility services that we are often oblivious to the primacy of water in our lives. When we want water, we turn on the tap. Every so often, though, we are reminded, through a natural disaster or water main break, of the reign of water in our daily lives. Most days we turn on the tap to shower, shave, brush our teeth, cook, clean, do laundry, wash our hands, and flush our toilet -- all on demand. What a privilege! What an engineering feat!
However, in much of the world people suffer under the tyranny of the tap. The tap isn’t on when you demand it. You’re on when the tap demands it.
Behold the tyrant!
Every morning around 6:30 am the kitchen tap in my apartment here in Nagpur begins to hiss and gurgle. The water is coming! It usually stays until about 9:30 am. Sometime during this three-hour window, I fill one 10-liter bucket for showering, one 10-liter bucket for cooking and cleaning, and one 10-liter bucket for drinking. But the work doesn’t end with filling the buckets. The water coming from the tap is of dubious quality, so the water that I drink requires further treatment, which I provide by using a hand-pumped membrane filter. It takes roughly 40 pumps to fill one bottle, and I typically consume five to seven bottles per day. I also wash any dirty dishes from dinner the previous night. Because I don’t enjoy cold showers, I also spend close to 20 minutes boiling 1.8 liters of water to add to my shower bucket, so I can at least take a lukewarm bucket shower. Each morning I spend close to an hour and a half managing my household water on top of the typical getting-ready-for-work duties.
Filtering drinking water using a hand pumped membrane filter.
During my 273 days living in Nagpur, I’ve spent roughly 410 hours managing my household water – that’s ten 40-hour work weeks. So I had to do a little hard work. What’s the big deal? Well, what’s insidious about all of this is what economists call “opportunity cost”. What else could I have been doing with 10 full-time work weeks’ worth of time? For a “rich” PhD student from the United States like myself, this opportunity cost doesn’t matter that much in terms of improving my economic position. But for a family living in poverty, the opportunity cost of coping with intermittent water supply could be the difference between remaining in poverty or gradually climbing up to the economic ladder. What could they gain from an extra 410 hours in a 9-month span? I should be more precise and ask, what could she gain from an extra 410 hours in a 9-month span, since the opportunity cost of sub-standard water access is primarily borne by women and girls.
What’s even more shocking, is that the 1.5 hours I spent managing water each day is quite low. My economic status allows me to insulate myself from many of the time demands associated with intermittent water. I can afford an apartment with a large rooftop storage tank that also fills when the water supply is on. This tank is connected to my bathroom sink, toilet, and washing machine, so that these amenities are what we call “virtual” 24x7. I also live in a posh area of town where the water comes on twice per day. The morning supply is on from 6:30 to 9:30 am and the evening supply is on from 6:30 to 7:30 pm for a total of four hours per day.
Rooftop water storage tanks above my apartment.
Imagine how the opportunity costs soar for a family that receives water at their household tap once per day or even once every few days. Or a family whose tap hisses and gurgles to life inconsistently – requiring that someone constantly standing guard. Or a family that doesn’t even have a household tap and instead must wait in a queue for water from a public tap stand and then carry that water back to their home? Before long, it isn’t hard to imagine women and girls spending 3 to 4 hours a day only managing household water. This scenario amounts to over 1,000 hours per year that they could use to accomplish something else, such as schooling, studying, working, or starting a small business.
Families eking their way out of poverty win through small, incremental gains at the margins. The opportunity cost of sub-standard water supply isn’t just a few hours each day: It is better tomorrows. The tap can be a cruel master.