I turn on the tap and wet my toothbrush, then turn it off. It’s only as I’m brushing that I remember that the tap water isn’t safe. I go out into the hall of my Saint Petersburg hotel and fill a bottle from the water cooler that is on each floor.
It’s hard to adjust when you have grown up in a country where you turn on the tap and the water that comes out is clear, cold, and often delightful. We complain when once or twice a year the system is flushed and there is a faint smell of chlorine for a day or two. We forget that for much of the world, safe water can’t be taken for granted.
When I started travelling this year with my trip to the Middle East, I brought a water bottle, a travel mug, my own bamboo cutlery and a metal straw to reduce waste and travel more sustainably. With the arrogance of a North American, it didn’t occur to me that a reusable water bottle is only effective when the tap water is safe to drink. I did not use it much that month. I didn’t even bring it when I went to India in May.
England, Germany and Japan were all places where I used my water bottle. Now, to lighten the load in my carry-on flying, I buy one bottle and refill it if possible, changing it after a week or so. For my road trips this summer and fall in the United States I carried a metal water bottle in my car, although as I passed through Flint, Michigan, I was reminded that even in North America the tap water is not always safe.
We see pictures of women in far away countries carrying water in jugs on their heads and we think it exotic colour, not considering the hours a day that fetching and heating water adds to the work load, what other activities might be supplanted by the need to fetch water. We can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to shower at will, let alone carry out the basic hygiene we require. We complain about the water pressure in our hotels, not realizing that not that far away a young woman might not be going to classes when she has her period, because there are not needed facilities at her school, or the ability to wash sanitary supplies at home. We don’t realize that diseases spread in unsafe water, and weakened immune systems then succumb to other diseases.
When I was a young child and living for a year with my aunt on the family farm, I remember taking my weekly bath with a scant two inches of water in the tub, as it had to be pumped and then heated. It seemed so strange when I was I used to living in town, where baths were perhaps too frequent for a six year old. I remember the excitement when there was inside plumbing to replace the outhouse. That was a long time ago, yet in Canada many isolated First Nations reserves still do not have access to safe water.
As I travel I see new issues arising over water. In Chennai, India, people fretted because the spring rains had not come. My friend there advised against booking a local hotel, as is my habit, because the large chains were more likely to have a reliable water supply. As I drove across North America this summer, people talked about water in a different way. There was not enough; but when it came, there was too much for the parched land to handle.
On the Dead Sea, old resorts sit derelict far from the water they once were on, and a plan to bring water from the Red Sea is well under way. The proposed canal would provide drinking water to Jordan, Israel and Palestine through desalination, with part of the water going to replenish the Dead Sea. A Jordanian official said it was “a national security issue.”
Home on Vancouver Island, there have been water restrictions in the summers for years now, as lessening snowpack in the mountains and increased population combine to deplete reservoirs. Salmon stocks are at risk in low flow rivers, as industry, residential users, and local governments argue about what to do.
The rains have come and I walk bareheaded on the beach, appreciating the water even more after my travels this year.