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Water Woes

Another tropical depression came through on Tuesday. This one seemed like barely a few raindrops compared to Agatha. However, we received word on Tuesday night that the project would be closed Wednesday morning because something in the water system at the project went awry, causing the dirty water to mix with the clean water.

To make matters worse, there’s no water at all in Zone 7, where two of our buildings are located. It went out because of the storm. The muni says water might be on by the end of the month, two weeks after it went out. So, Camino Seguro is piping in water in order for the plumbing to work. We’re also carting in 5-gallon bottles for all of our cooking and drinking water. Normally, the water here is fine for cooking, washing up and brushing your teeth. You wouldn’t want to chug it straight out of the faucet, though. They’re saying that the water being pumped in is so bad we shouldn’t even wash our hands in it. We were advised that even the kids shouldn’t wash in it. But, to be honest, I don’t know what that means.

There is a huge disparity between sanitation standards here and in the states. The difference is even starker when compared to the conditions that our students live in. But, I feel like that difference is maintained within Guatemala in some very unexpected ways.I understand that the kids’ bodies are accustomed to microbes that my body just can’t handle. But, it pains me to think that I’m drinking water that’s cleaner than what they get. It doesn’t appear that diarrhea is a widespread problem here, which is really lucky. But the water has cholera and other diseases, particularly after Agatha. There are still bodies buried in the mud, and every time it rains, bacteria and disease seep into the ground water.

Then there are the “normal” standards here. As I mentioned in my posting about the dump, medical waste is not separated and handled properly, so disease seeps into the two underground rivers running beneath the dump. There is very little infrastructure for litter abatement here, and trash is haphazardly strewn about everywhere. This all also seeps into the ground water. Something that unhealthy should never be the norm. Not only is the water quality here very poor, but water availability is inconsistent. Increased urbanization and demand for water for farming have drastically reduced accessibility to water. I have heard that it is not uncommon for homes in the neighborhoods our families live in to only have water every other day. Organización Panamericana de la Salud, the WHO regional office for Latin America, estimates that 80% of urban homes in Guatemala have water for 12 hours per day. This is why our students must brush their teeth and bathe at the program. Their access to basic sanitation at home is often nonexistent, and, when it is there, the water is potentially full of disease. Meanwhile, I sit in my home in Antigua with water anytime I need it (hot water, at that) and don’t have to worry about whether it will poison me. Untreated tap water in Antigua is still undrinkable for foreigners, but I can go about my daily hygiene routine without a thought or care.

It is incredibly hard going day in and day out knowing how separated I am from the students. I drink different water than they do. Drinking water is about the most basic of human biological needs, and we’re separated. For the life of me, I can’t wrap my brain around that. We drink different water. That’s a big deal.

I think providing English language instruction to the students is absolutely vital. But, they have so many other pressing things going on, which often aren’t met. How do you solve this problem? How do you justify putting resources into an English program or a sports program or any other activity when the youth have dirty water (not to mention empty bellies, threadbare clothes, holes in their shoes, etc)? Do you concentrate on making sure their basic needs are met or do you hope that their unbrushed teeth don’t fall out while they’re in English class?

While I believe that we have an obligation to provide for our students’ unmet basic needs, I believe the only real way to be sure they are met is through the focus on high-quality education. I think it’s a question of relief versus development. You can provide a toothbrush and clean water, but what happens when that toothbrush is worn out? The individual is once again left without a toothbrush. If you provide education, you provide the tools for them to be able to go get their own toothbrushes, and a whole lot more.

Relief provides nothing more than dependence. But, through education, individuals are empowered with the tools and knowledge necessary to lift themselves out of poverty. With education, you build capacity, which is the only way to create real, lasting change. Education will enable the creation of a sustainable system that provides for more than these youth have ever dreamed of. Providing items is a short-term fix. Providing a means to the tools to create infrastructure is a long-term solution. If the real goal is to be helpful, then the imperative is to think about ways to provide stability from within.

So, go ahead and give my students water and toothbrushes. They need it right now. I’m giving them books and knowledge so one day they can provide their own water and toothbrushes. And I feel great about that. It’s easy to think about what these students don’t have. It’s important to think about what they can have.

This week, I found peace across the separation.