Published September 9, 2010
by Michael J. Mascarenhas
It is difficult to account for the many effects on a community of having access to a clean and consistent supply of drinking water. Through a comparison of two umudugudus (villages), one with an improved source of water and the other without, I will try to document some of the themes that have occurred to me thus far. But before I begin this analysis I want to give a brief comparison of the two umudugudus.
The households we interviewed in the Gatobotobo Village get their water from unimproved springs or the Rwamugaza River, depending on the season. Because there is no consistent improved water source, the households in this village can spend a good portion of each day looking for and fetching water (this is particularly the case in the dry season). Furthermore, all the women we spoke with commented on how ephemeral their water source has been recently.
This inconsistency does not go away in the rainy season because the quality of the water from the river and larger springs is dramatically compromised, becoming more turbid and carrying more waste, mostly in the form of manure and human wastes.
During the rainy season households spend time looking for smaller, ephemeral streams because experience has proved such streams cleaner and safer. Furthermore, while village life is mostly cooperative, sharing resources and labor in informal relations, water scarcity has started to generate conflicts between otherwise agreeable neighbors.
The impacts of living under these conditions are complex. Because so much time is spent looking for water, other household chores and activities — washing clothes or making household improvements, to mention only two — cannot be accomplished. The simple act of bathing becomes compromised. Not knowing where and when the next jerrycan will be filled produces a sense of anxiety and stress that hangs over daily life.
Farming is also compromised. Getting water cuts into the time available for tilling, sowing, pruning and harvesting, and the usual result is that the crop yields less. This is exacerbated by the fact that the household has no excess water to irrigate the crops. Loss of farming time and lack of irrigation together jeopardize the economic well-being of the household because there is less surplus production that makes its way to the local market.
Compromised income also means that there is less money to spend on basic needs, such as shelter, clothing, health care and sanitation, or to prepare for future events, such as droughts or heavy rains, adding to the anxiety of an already uncertain future.
The neighboring village of Kabirizi received an improved gravity-fed public tap about five years ago. Everyone I interviewed in this village stated emphatically that there had been a great improvement in villagers’ lives since the public taps were installed. “Today,” one participant said, “I can even take my bike to get water because it is so close.”
Having secure access to water means that a household can make plans for tomorrow. Knowing that water is available, regardless of the season, to bathe and wash clothes does much to improve one’s sense of self-worth. As one woman said, the family can wear “clean clothes to go to church on Sunday, and the kids can look smart for school on Monday.”
And those villagers who could afford it were able to irrigate their crops more regularly, resulting in larger harvests, with more surplus to be sold at the local market, which further improves a household’s economic security. Finally, the extra profits can be reinvested in the house or farm or saved for an emergency.
Gathering water is a way of life in rural Rwanda. However, this brief comparison between the households in two villages, one with an improved source of water and the other without, is striking. Having access to water can indirectly benefit the economic well-being of subsistence farmers in Rwanda. By comparison, not having access to water can have a negative economic impact.
Having access to water also has indirect physical consequences. When women and children don’t have to trek long distances or wait for long periods for water they are less tired, and can focus their energies on other important matters— farming, household maintenance or school. In contrast, not having access to water adds to the hardships of subsistence living.
An improved water source means less anxiety, and a greater sense of optimism. I will end this analysis here, and my next entry will examine the impacts of introducing water technologies into subsistence cultures.