Water in Bissau

It would seem that water and electricity are an elusive combination in Bissau. Before arriving here, I took it for granted that I'd be able to shower in a lit bathroom everyday. It hasn't quite worked out that way. So far, I've mostly showered in the dark, or used buckets in a brightly lit bathroom. There are peak times for water use --morning before work, from 7 to 9, for example-- when you can be sure that turning on the tap will only yield a few drops of water. Bathing at that time requires making use of the plastic scooping cups that are ubiquitous is Bissau.  As it would happen, I'm apparently one of the lucky ones: a friend's apartment, while beautiful, didn't have running water, leaving the tenants (expats, I might add) to head to the water reservoir outdoors. The current tenant managed to renovate and get running water; he also told me he puts bleach tablets in his reservoir and showers with the bleached water.
 This brings us to water cleanliness, another major issue in Bissau. Most expats are vaccinated against typhoid and cholera ( I'm set for typhoid, and am probably going to get cholera done soon) but the mystery remains: just how clean is Bissau's drinking water? Since we get water from the municipality most of the time, our cistern water is state provided. How does one even proceed to put bleach in every drop she uses? And even if one could successfully bleach every drop, isn't that overkill on some level? Aside from chafing skin and flaky hair, washing every vegetable you eat in bleached water can't be good for the human digestive tract. Is that why so many people here have ulcers and ultimately die untimely deaths from gastrointestinal ailments? Another thing I can't quite figure out is why people insist it's ok to wash veggies in bleached water, but refuse to boil pasta in anything but bottled water.
I find that Expats working in development can sometimes have the unfortunate tendency to criticize everything in their host country. I think the focus on the dysfunction is a patronizing way of justifying our own existence, but does little to find durable solutions or even acknowledge that we are not the only ones that can bring order: there is often an existing order we don't bother to figure out. Rather than stay in the expat echo chamber, where rumors about varying levels of water cleanliness abound, I asked a friend from Bissau to tell me more. After a lengthy conversation, I walked away feeling more informed. There are upsides and downsides to water in Bissau: while the water itself is clean -- his family only uses a filter, the state has no way to guarantee that the pipes are as well. That said, there are far fewer pollution issues in Bissau than in, say, West Virginia. So I guess that means we can all chill out a bit about the water...
My closing thought is that there is an upside to not having water every day. Yes, I said it. You will not die if you don't have access to water 24/7. Moving to Bissau has made me realize just how much water I wasted while living in the U.S., Europe and even Abidjan, and that's a good thing. Granted, I no longer have the luxury of taking long steaming showers, or even going to the bathroom when I want. But as someone who grew up with the do-gooder, mostly ineffective water conservation public awareness campaigns, I've come to realize that nothing makes you understand quite how scarce water is until you are scooping it out of the cistern in your shower to bathe.
Joanna Busby1 Comment