03/04/2014 12:42 EST | Updated 05/04/2014 05:59 EDT

Where the Water Doesn't Flow

By Bonnie Thornbury

Bonnie Thornbury is a Canadian Co-operative Association intern working in Rwanda

In high school, Ms. Shelton, my Gr. 12 English teacher, had us read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I remember talking at length about the symbolism of water within the book. Rivers and streams run like veins over our earth's surface. Water brings life, takes life, enables exploration and trade, and is an essential source of food and drink. It calms us, cleanses us, and, through flood, drought, tsunami, and hurricane, has the power to devastate us.

I was fascinated by the concept and the many trickle down effects of water, but never thought about the possibility of not having water. I didn't think about the book or the power of water again until living and working in Malawi two years ago.

In many ways, Malawi is in dire straits. The country's infrastructure is paralysed by extreme poverty, ongoing drought, and lack of export commodities. Worse, much of the infrastructure is dependent on water. When water levels are low, the country's electricity supply is impacted. Drought also means crops are not adequately irrigated, resulting in large-scale food scarcity for the nation's 15 million inhabitants. And on top of that, drought means a lack of access to water - clean or otherwise - for drinking, food preparation, and washing.

Toward the end of my stay in Malawi water was becoming desperately scarce. Women began asking for water door to door in the few neighbourhoods, such as mine, where infrastructure was more developed and evidently prioritized in times of shortage. We were feeling the effects of the crisis, but still had intermittent water flow and electricity. In other parts of the city and country, days without water were quickly turning into weeks.

I lack eloquence in expressing just how much this experience reverberated within me. It had never occurred to me that water could be such a luxury. Commercials from development organizations frequently talk about 'lack of access to clean drinking water,' but the situation in Malawi was even more shocking than such commercials had ever conveyed to me. I naively assumed that there is always a source of water, it just might not be particularly clean, or near.

As the heat pressed in on Malawi, the meandering, muddy Lilongwe River was nearly dry.

Living in a country where water shortages are a reality, there is always a jerry can or a plastic pail of extra water on hand. But what happens when days go by and your pail is nearly empty, your rations growing smaller, and there is no relief in sight? If you are a poor person in the city, dependent on public water pumps, chances are there actually is no other realistic source of water.

During this particular crisis, the national newspaper was reporting women gathered at public pumps, sitting shift around the clock and waiting days for the moment when the taps would finally flow free. I have never tended a faucet in my life, let alone with thirst, desperation, and a family depending on me.

Becoming water-conscious was my first step in what will surely be a lifelong process of 'going green.' Witnessing the shortage of water in Malawi, and experiencing people's pure relief in turning on the taps after days without water, I realized how loose our relationship with water is in the West; we turn on the tap, and out comes crystal clear, drinkable water. End of story. Our lakes and rivers are relatively clean. There is no need to boil water. In most cases, there is no need to filter minerals and dirt. Having never experienced a shortage, conservation just doesn't cross our minds.

Returning to Canada, I took - and continue to take - baby steps in conserving at home. When washing dishes, use a minimum of water. Rinse by dipping all dishes in a sink with a bit of water, rather than running the water each time. Shut the tap off when brushing teeth. Take fewer showers. Take shorter showers. Reuse excess boiled water by watering plants or washing dishes.

Now living and working in Rwanda through the Canadian Cooperative Association, the longest water shortage I've experienced thus far has been 24 hours. 'The Land of a Thousand Hills,' as Rwanda is often called is lush and mountainous and rains are frequent. Still, climate change is taking it's toll on local populations; rains are increasingly unpredictable resulting in widespread floods and crop losses.

For all our humanly efforts, we will never be able to harness our climate. And unfortunately, those most affected by climate change continue to be the most vulnerable. The good news is that we all have agency - we all have the power to make hundreds of small 'green' choices each day, which over time, multiplied by the estimated 1 billion people living in the 'developed world' ... that's a hundred billion small changes with an enormous impact.

"What saves us is efficiency-the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force - nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others." ― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness


A Photo Journey Through Malawi