Everyone can live without petrol, gold and diamond, but no one can survive without the blue gold. Hence, it behoves us all to make judicious use of it, and to leave intact its sources for all future generations!
As with previous years — and true to form — we have once again reached the period of droughts and cuts.
What follows does not purport to be a scientific study, but is rather based on the author’s own personal observations.
Ke pacche ba?1 These are the three magic words any new newcomer had to utter aloud to the crowd of women and children waiting at the village public tap, the Lafontaine. Of course, no self-respecting man would be seen dead there! The response was usually quite spontaneous. “Hum haye!”2 Someone would answer, equally aloud.
Having thus found out his/her position in the queue, the newcomer would then proceed to find some place to sit — usually on a stone — and wait for his/her turn to fill his/her bucket with the precious liquid. With up to 25 women and children waiting at any given time, and the water not exactly gushing out of the tap, the wait could last up to an hour or more.
That was in the bad old days.
Today most, if not all, of the 350k Mauritian households are connected to the CWA mains pipe. In theory, everyone has running water 24/365 days a year. However, as the above scene depicts, this was not always the case. Indeed, for the older ones amongst us, this is a luxury we could only dream of in the pre-Independence days, because it just was not available at any cost.
The rural areas were particularly affected due to lack of infrastructure—both in terms of storage reservoirs and mains supply. And boreholes were still a distant gleam in some brilliant engineer’s eyes. Only those with loads of money (and influence!) could afford to connect to the mains, because these were so few and far between. Indeed, the connection of any household was a major event witnessed by hordes of children, and grown-ups!
Thus, while the few lucky households had their own private supply, the rest of us had to rely on the few lafontaines that dotted our towns and villages. And when, these ran dry — which was not as rare as one would imagine — we had to walk miles to the nearest canal or river. In times of severe drought, the authorities sent a tanker lorry which ensured a bare minimum of drinking water to every household
Amidst the cacophony generated by the Crapo Crier brigade, I wonder how many of us ever stop to think how lucky we are to be endowed with our own water supply, even though it may not run all day long. Indeed what a luxury it is to have it at all! If anyone has any doubt, then let us just consider some very pertinent facts.
Mauritius has a long-term availability of just 2.20 cubic kilometers of water, which puts us in 152nd place out of a list of 179 countries. Most of the 26 countries that follow us are to be found in the desert region of the Middle East, which include Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. Perhaps a glaring exception is Singapore, but then the island state is able to “import” from Malaysia (20th position), its well-endowed big brother next door. Being far removed from the continental shelf, we do not have such luck, alas!
In 2006, the UN Human Development Agency reported the following:
– 1.1bn people in LDCs have inadequate access to water.
– 2.6bn people lack basic sanitation.
– 50 percent of the people in the LDCs suffer from health problems due to shortage of water and consequent deficits in sanitation.
– 20 percent (400m) children in the LDCs have no access to safe water, and 1.4m die every year due to lack of safe drinking water and sanitation.
– Millions of women have to walk for many hours and many miles to collect water.
– The economic costs—in terms of health provision, labour diversion and productivity losses— is estimated at 5 percent of GDP (USD 28.4bn annually) in sub-Saharan Africa.
To which, one may add, the social and human costs are patently obvious.
Not even the most ardent critic of the CWA would argue that anyone in Mauritius has inadequate access to water or sanitation. Walking any distance to collect water is a thing of the past, and no one suffers from bad health or dies due to lack of water and sanitation. In fact, each one of us consumes a whopping 210 litres of the stuff daily, ahead of the UK (51st place) where the per capita consumption is 150 litres per day.
It is high time we Mauritians realised that our water stock is very limited. Indeed, it is almost as poor as that of desert countries. And, considering the local topology and scarce land availability, we have limited sites to construct further dams—even the much-vaunted Bagatelle reservoir has encountered its lot of difficulties3! So, the long-term answer has to be found elsewhere; and that requires the concerted effort of all stakeholders, all of us.
The virtuous Rs
First we must learn to practice the 4 virtuous Rs — that is Reduce, Re-use, Recycle and Rainwater harvesting.
Reduce. “Uncle, I can’t believe it; a whole month costs me just £1 (R.50)!” my young neighbour from UK exclaimed the first time she paid her CWA bill. “One litre can cost that much in UK,” she added incredulously.
Water is so cheap in Mauritius that we can afford to be profligate and waste this valuable resource without compunction. In the midst of a drought in October, people permit themselves — and are allowed by the authorities — to use their hosepipes to wash their cars and their patios. Perhaps worst of all, some people leave the garden sprinkler on all day to water the lawn. A change in tariff and further education in reducing consumption might help to do the trick. But all this, and more have to be backed up by an unforgiving application of the rules. If need be, the latter must be further tightened, if we want to avoid this wanton waste.
Re-use. This is perhaps one of the easiest things to do but, again because of the peanuts we pay for our water, not many of us bother. Yet, it does not require any Herculean strength to carry the dishwater to water the garden plants, instead of pouring it down the sink. There are other examples where we can re-use, such as our bath water.
Rainwater Harvesting. This is so also one of the easiest ways we can all contribute to save our water stock, and make it last longer. Yet not many of us bother because, once again, I suspect because of the low cost.
Unless one can afford it, there is no need to install expensive, elaborate catchment tanks; a couple of barrels costing R200 will do for a start. Eventually, though, it must become a legal requirement to have a catchment facility of a sizeable capacity—even if some of it may need to be subsidised by the public purse. If each household builds up a capacity to catch just 1k litres, we would harvest 350m litres at every downpour. I shall leave it to the reader to imagine the billions of litres that can be thus saved in a year.
Recycle. Government has obviously seen, and understood the need. After Grand Bay, it is right now wisely spending billions in the installation of a sewerage system in the upper Plaines Wilhems region that will help recycle more wastewater.
Water, Water everywhere
Surrounded as we are by a vast ocean, there is often talk of desalination. But, the cost aside, the logistics of disposing the by-products and getting the finished product to the consumer may make this an impractical project. However, if push comes to shove, we could opt to desalinate in specific areas — like Grand Bay — that are close to the sea.
But, even if we manage to fulfil all the above, we will still need treat the precious commodity that is water with a lot more respect. Because all life, and living things depend on it for survival. Everyone can live without petrol, gold and diamond, but no one can survive without the blue gold. Hence, it behoves us all to make judicious use of it, and to leave intact its sources for our children, our children’s children, indeed for all future generations!
1. Who is last (in the queue)?
2. I am!
3. At the latest count, it will cost an extra R2bn because of the porosity of the soil.