Sunday, June 08, 2008

A few hours of water in Kathmandu

Though the Monsoon is upon us here in Kathmandu, or nearly so, water is still scarce. The last two days have brought hard, heavy bullets of rain, droplets so big that they only sting when the rain begins to let up, and yet opening the taps in the morning sets free only a series of gasps and sighs as air rushes in where by rights water should flow out. When I ask Sampana, the younger son of the family upstairs, when our water will come back on, he says, “It's supposed to be today. So maybe today.”

The water officially comes twice a week, for a few hours at a time. When it does, it goes on for the entire neighborhood at once, and while I'm uncertain of the reach of the area that gets water with us, the water pressure in the pipes is so low that extraction of more than 10 or so liters in a few hours requires a jackhammering electric pump to suck and suckle enough water for the basic needs of the building.

The pump has two plastic hoses attached to it: one goes as deep into the single pipe as we can shove it, once the valve at the end has been opened; the other curves and loops to a large metal tank in the yard, a rectangular brushed-metal box reinforced with gussets and rivets. When the water goes off—and it never stays on long enough to fill the box, which must be around 1000 liters—the pump is disengaged from the pipe, the pipe's valve closed, and another tube run up to the roof, to a cylindrical tank made of black PVC and stamped “1000 LTRS.” in big, white, Roman letters. The pump is moved, and when the electricity is on fully—in addition to load-shedding, at times the voltage or amperage tapers, or it gushes and wanes—it pumps the water from this ground level tank to the roof tank, which supplies the drinking, cooking, and washing water for the house1.

The yard behind my kitchen door is a tangle of hoses, wires, and pumps: In addition to the three hoses for the blue drinking water pump, there are separate hoses to each apartment and into a concrete-shielded well for the groundwater pump, which we use to fill 15-liter buckets that we flush the toilets with—the house, in true bikas2 style, having Western toilets. This water is murky and, as it sits, separates into continents of oily residue, mostly clear water, and a sludge of particulates at the bottom. By reputation, this water isn't even worth filtering—the oil scum with clog irreparably any filter you send the water through.

The consequences of severely limited water stretch very, very wide. Indeed, it's my feeling that lack of moderately clean water more entrenches poverty and the cycle of poverty than lack of electricity.

First, and perhaps most obvious, lack of water effects a “deficiency” of hygiene, in the sense that personal and social hygienic practices are greatly disrupted. With no water, I wash less often, and when there's been no water for four or five days my home handwashing becomes restricted to the soapy water in a small blue bucket where I've scrubbed my hands many times before. I wash dishes less often, usually only after I've cooked a big dinner, rather than after I've used them, and this means there are more crumbs lying about and sticky residues on tables and counters for ants, salamanders, flies, and cockroaches to eat—all carriers of disease, and populations that wouldn't be sustained with enough water to wash dishes, to wipe of a table, to mop the floor. Sickness begets poverty, though as a temporary resident and a Westerner I am spared the worst of this.

The soft effects of the (semi-)permanent water shortage are legion as well. I go out to eat more often, because my pots and pans are dirty and I have no water to clean them, because I want to use a proper toilet that flushes and wash my hands, because I've run out of water to even cook with. This in turn gives more economic power to the businesses that already buy their way out of shortages—in effect, it perpetuates inequality, since it's the business owners in Nepal who are typically already rich, especially those who run Western- or “bikas” Nepali-oriented places.

Not everyone stands content with the municipal supply, or lack thereof, however. Through Kathmandu and especially in the outlying towns where the trickles of streams down the mountainsides supply more water than the residents use for their terraced subsistence gardens, you find a mechanical army of tankers that truck water from where it is to where it isn't. Add to this the pickups full of 20 liter plastic jugs of UV-irradiated and ozonated water—the same type of jug you use for the office water cooler in the developed world—and one can literally buy a way out of shortages. This means that the effects of shortages fall hardest on those who are unable to buy their way out. the water shortage commodifies a basic human requirement for life, and further lodges Nepal's already enormous social stratification.

And the costs continue to radiated outward and multiply each others effects. There's a maxim in road engineering—the science of how to pave which road—that says that one overloaded truck axle is equal to 20,000 cars. The roads of Kathmandu, already in terrible condition, are filled with overfull trucks, and so the roads require repaving more often than usual, and parts break and wear out in much shorter lifespans for bicycles, rickshaw, motorcycles and cars. The tankers, carrying water better delivered in pipes already laid, spew black smoke into the air, often so forcefully that a cartoonish black cloud follows behind them. The air pollution here can get so bad that expats have tend to get the “Kathmandu hack” and regular respiratory infections, and one presumes that lifelong Kathmandu residents would be in worse condition.

Even in relatively wealthy neighborhoods, as mine is, evinces bad feelings and poor decisions brought by shortages. This morning one neighbor on my street had put buckets underneath the sporadic waterfall of ornamental-plant runoff from another's roof, which became the incitement for a rehash of prior grievances. When I came back from Langtang, I ran into my landlords just as I was returning and though the water was on when I returned, as I washed my hands in the kitchen sink and the water falling off them, the water beating on the basin, slowed, to a stream, to a trickle, to a dribble, to a few drops, and then to nothing. This was perhaps the third time something similar had happened, and I became suspicious that my landlords were cutting water to our apartment downstairs, to save it for their own.

I took a walk to clear my head, and right about the spot I took my picture of the banyan tree atop the temple at Hadigaon chowk, from a pried open manhole cover in the road, a plastic hose led to a pump, bouncing itself off the asphalt and noisily hammering away, the dirty water moving via another hose to a second-story apartment. Presumably the water was going to be filtered and used for washing or the toilet; someone was so desperate for water that they were pumping the sewer.

1 I don't drink it, but it is meant to be safe to drink, and the family upstairs certainly do. I waver on whether to cook with it unfiltered (I have more often than not), but I certainly wash with it.

2 Bikas is the Nepali word for “developed,” the opposite of abikas (“backward”), and in dominant Nepali culture is the summation of a successful life.

The idea of Development is at the fore of Nepali consciousness (as much as any foreigner can make such a generalization). When I was last at Pashupati, I was sitting on a bench and suddenly surrounded by a group of four Nepali young men from Bhaktapur—who proceeded to interrogate me about how far, in years, Nepal's Development is behind that of the US.

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