One week in rural Nicaragua, and I don’t know when I will run out of stories about it, if I ever do. The village I just got back from is quiet and tranquil, with dark nights and unreliable electricity. There are no paved roads. Food comes largely from what the people themselves can hunt, raise, or grow – and while they also earn money through jobs picking coffee, working at a sugarcane plantation, and doing various other things, unemployment hovers at between 40% and 60%. The village has only a couple of motorized vehicles, one of which is a pickup truck (the others are motorcycles – I think there are two of them), and these are easily outnumbered by horses, of which there are also only a handful, and bicycles. Most people walk everywhere.
So obviously, after a week, I must have a thousand stories! The question is: where to begin?
I was there for a photo project I had worked out with the community leaders. The idea was to document, as much as possible in a week, the life and work of the community while also taking as many portraits as possible. I went around to almost all the houses and tried to take photos of everyone there. I also followed people around as they worked in the fields, doing laundry, cooking, and so on… I even went with some sugarcane workers to the plantation where they work. But that’s just a tease for another time. The photos will eventually be used to promote development projects.
So the point here is, I’m not kidding about stories : I actually do have a lot of them. And a good place to begin, I think, is with a comment by Eloisa, my hostess for the week in Santa Julia (72 families, about 490 people). In reply to a comment by me about how much greener Nicaragua is in July as compared to December and January, which is when I normally come, Eloisa said:
“Right now, everything is green. The soil is rich. Plants and animals grow well. We have plenty to eat.
“In the dry season there is nothing but sun, dust and poverty.”
She was talking about water. Or rather, lack of it.
In Santa Julia, water is a big deal. Even though a lot of it is falling from the sky right now (though oddly, Santa Julia is experiencing a dry spell at the moment), the people in this community still have to manage it carefully. They rarely have as much as they need, and certainly not as much as they want.
Santa Julia lies on a mountain ridge just below the town of El Crucero, which is about 40 minutes north-west of Managua. Officially, it is also part of El Crucero – what Nicaraguans call a comarca (“suburb” just doesn’t capture it) – and to get there from El Crucero you have to travel about 8 kilometers down a very bad dirt road. Typically, that part of the trip takes about 15 or 20 minutes all by itself in a vehicle, for a total of about an hour to get from Casa Canadiense, my base in Managua, to the centre of Santa Julia.
Just to compare, the road in can be walked in about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on which way you’re going (uphill or downhill).
It’s beautiful. The whole place is just simply beautiful.
Now, El Crucero pipes water in to Santa Julia. That doesn’t mean it goes to people’s homes, however. There are two faucets: one in a spot out back of Eloisa and Domingo’s house, and another in front of Lola and Alfonso’s house, at the bottom of a hill near the other side of town. Whenever the water comes on (this can be for a couple of hours in the middle of the night), people rush to the faucets with buckets and oil drums and pop bottles and basically anything else that will carry or store water, and they carry away as much as they can. They do this, on average, every fifteen days.
Yes, that’s right. The entire community gets water from two faucets every two weeks. If they’re lucky. In February, March and April of 2012, Santa Julia went for about three months without water. To get it, they had to compete with several other villages for access to a small spring about three or four kilometers away and down a track so narrow and difficult that horses can’t always take it. The women were taking laundry down to wash, and returning with the wet laundry on their heads. They also took large buckets down and returned with those on their heads, full of water to drink.
Another relatively reliable source of water is a couple of large ‘pilas’, which remain from the time when a large coffee plantation sat on this site. Pilas are concrete containers in the ground, where water is stored for medium-term use. Many homes have them, and they can store enough water to last a couple of weeks or a couple of months, depending on the size of the family or the size of the pila. They are typically replenished by hand when water is plentiful, but they also catch rain.
However, the unused, industrial-sized pilas, left over from the plantation, are another matter. As far as I know, the water in these is replenished primarily by rain and stays for a long time, growing green or yellow over time from various algae blooms and who knows what else. The people sometimes have to use this water to wash clothing or people. However, they say that when they do so it makes them itch.
At certain times, when there is no choice, they also put as much chlorine as they can into this water and drink it. They prefer not to do this, for obvious reasons.
Let’s not forget that access to clean drinking water is a human right.
That said, people right now are not suffering from a serious water shortage. In fact, the faucets were turned on twice in one week recently, though we shouldn’t take that as a sign of changes to come. And they’re pretty good-humoured about it most of the time, though there is a strong undercurrent of anger and frustration that shows up every now and then in comments like Eloisa’s.
I don’t claim to know everything – or even very much – about the complexities of water politics in general or Nicaragua’s water situation in particular, and I am not writing this to make anybody feel guilty. In Canada we have a lot of water, use it freely, and don’t even always charge for its distribution or use. We’re lucky. We need to protect our water resources and not do things with them that could have the effect of making them unavailable in the future (like polluting lakes or diverting rivers to sell the water in bulk).
About Nicaragua, all I can say is that I would like my friends to have enough to drink without getting sick from it. I would also like them to be able to wash their clothes and children in clear water that won’t make them itch. How we get from here to there is a complex matter.
Want to see some other pictures? Here you go.
See you next time!