We don’t have water. The pipes running through our walls are dry. I discovered this situation nine mornings ago. I woke to visit Aunt Nellie, as my great aunt would say, and, after contemplating the meaning of life, I rose, I flushed, and I washed my hands. Except where water once flowed at my beck and call, now there was none. By the end of the day, the plumbers would deliver the verdict: no water was reaching our meter, and there was no break in any of the lines. After two bouts with the polar vortex, the temps of the previous few days, hovering right around the zero mark, had allowed the frost layer to reach deeper than it had ever been. Roughly three times deeper, in the estimation of the local farmers. Somewhere along the eighty feet of pipe running between our meter and the city main (most probably the section that had been repaired last summer and thus is now sitting in disturbed earth, but no one can say for sure without exploratory digging), there is a freeze. All we can do is hope for a thaw.
We moved to central Iowa from Southern Louisiana seven months ago. I guess we went from the extremes of summer to the extremes of winter. In Louisiana, we were in the path of tropical storms and hurricanes, so we have lived without electricity, even in sweltering temps. In the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, which hit just weeks after we moved to Baton Rouge, we even stood in a FEMA relief line to receive a week’s supply of bottled water, MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), bags of ice, and the iconic blue tarp. Preparations for sheltering in place for an indefinite period had become a normal part of our summer routine. This was not something we thought about in Iowa. Still, when it became clear that water was not going to be restored that first night, we were familiar with the process of roughing it at home. We knew, for example, that the recommendation is to have one gallon of water per person per day for consumption and sanitation. Shopping list in hand, we headed to the rural consumer palace: Wal-Mart. A couple flats of bottled water, $.88-gallon jugs, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, and extra snacks, and we felt amply prepared. Life without running water? No problem. We got this.
The next morning, reality set in. I quickly realized that while we had plenty of water to drink, sanitation and hygiene were not going to be so easy. My nine-year-old son thought the situation most excellent. His father and I, not so much. We hadn’t had running water the morning before, so we were now forty-eight hours since our last shower. My skin and hair are mercilessly dry, and so I knew I could at least maintain an appearance of cleanliness. My spouse’s skin and hair fall far on the other extreme. I offered to wash his hair, figuring it would use less water than if he attempted it on his own. Even so, it took half a gallon of water.
Suddenly, it seemed like we were using so much water.
The human body is approximately 70% water. While the amount varies based on age, sex, weight, overall health, and other factors, on average, women need to consume nine cups of water daily, and men need thirteen. Our bodies maintain a careful balance between consumption and elimination to ensure that we remain physically and cognitively functional. Extreme fluctuations in this balance, particularly when we begin eliminating more than we consume, lead not only to the discomfort of dehydration, but also fatigue, impaired mental processes, organ failure, and, ultimately, death.
As a professor of women’s history, water often makes special appearances in my class discussions. My students read an excerpt from Jeanne Boydston’s book Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic, which outlines the daily household labors of eighteenth and nineteenth century American women. Hauling water from the well to their homes for drinking, cooking, and cleaning was one of the most important tasks of a woman’s day. One survivalist website I read pointed out that, depending on the container used, a gallon of water weighs about eight pounds. If a woman was fortunate, then, her husband or father had positioned the homestead near a fresh water source or dug a well nearby. Other women did not have this luxury. Homesteader Rachel Calof describes the difficulties of life without a readily available water supply. The women featured in Lilian Schlissel’s Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey often went for long stretches without encountering easily accessible fresh water. In the meantime, they had to carefully ration water in barrels in their wagons. The scorching sun and hot prairie winds surely made this difficult, especially with disease, hunger, and young children complicating matters. Twenty percent of these women gave birth along the way. Without any extra water available. And then they nursed those infants. Without any extra water available. As a professor, I had often asked my students to imagine what this would be like. Now, I didn’t have to imagine; it felt all too real. I began to worry what would happen if my son got sick while we didn’t have any water in the house.
My respect for the women of the past only deepened.
So, too, did my understanding of water security. Last year, the U.S. Institute for Peace and other agencies co-hosted a conference on the relationship between water security and international conflicts. Only 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater. Our global population of 7 billion and growing tends to be clustered in regions where access to this water is most limited. By 2025, a disturbingly significant portion of the global population — from the deserts of California to the Indus Valley — will be experiencing moderate to severe water shortages that will negatively affect national economies as well as individual health. While no one seems to be predicting that actual wars will be fought over water supplies, they do envision access to water being used as leverage in conflicts. While it’s easier to believe that water scarcity is a thing for history books or dystopic future projections, the reality is that 780 million people already lack access to clean water.
Supplying families with water still falls under the category of women’s work. Worldwide, women spend a collective 200 million hours a day collecting water. In some places, girls are expected to miss school in order to help their mothers fetch water, often walking miles to the nearest water source, only to find it contaminated or controlled by someone seeking to make a profit from the needs of others. Even to my ears, this sounds more like something from the pages of National Geographic than real life. Fresh water delivered straight into our bathtubs, cups, and dishwashers seems so… expected. Most Americans have plenty of clean water available. Indeed, one estimate suggests that in a five-minute shower, we use more water than a person in some parts of the world uses in an entire day. This is not true for everyone in the United States, of course. Folks in West Virginia are still dealing with polluted water from the recent chemical spill. Residents of other states also face pollutants in their water supply, whether from soil run-off, drilling, or other sources. Our former hometown in Santa Barbara County, California (like other locales in the West) is experiencing a historic drought, with water supplies at only 40% of their usual capacity. Nearly 40% of Navajo households lack a tap or toilet, a consequence of long-term institutional racism and poverty. Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of rural households live without indoor plumbing. And countless Americans have their water supplies cut off by their local utility providers because they could not pay their bill. Even so, we think of these (rightly or wrongly) as exceptional cases, certainly not as the norm for our country.
Half a gallon to wash hair. Two gallons to force a flush on the toilet. And what about hand washing? We adhere to the fifteen-second rule — the recommended length of time for rinsing your hands in running water with a soap lather to remove germs. After sudsing up, I grabbed the bottle and started counting. It took eight ounces. For one hand.
One gallon a day for consumption and sanitation. One gallon. That’s 128 ounces. Sixteen ounces to wash my hands thoroughly just once. I began to feel very thirsty. And very dirty.
I tried telling myself that hygiene was really a twenty-first-century issue. In times past, people were nowhere near as clean as people are today. Although some cultures made daily bathing a significant social ritual, this was not the case throughout much of European history. Most American colonists settled for a daily sponging. A proper bath was only possible a few times a year. The Founding Fathers were stinky. So was everyone else. Perfumed handkerchiefs and nosegays of fresh flowers were essential accessories for ladies and gentlemen alike. The smell was not the only problem. Disease was rampant and overall health was poor. There were a variety of factors that contributed to this, but most certainly the lack of hygiene played a critical role. Recognition that microbes carried disease was not widely accepted in this country until late in the nineteenth century. Until then, the nation’s inhabitants suffered from high rates of disease-related deaths, including those due to contaminated water supplies and poor sanitation.
Again, this is not a problem of the past. Most of the people living on this planet do not have enough water to take a shower or flush a toilet. One child dies every 21 seconds from a water-related illness. Diarrhea alone kills 1.5 million children each year. It is the second leading cause of death for children under age five in the world. Despite how gross we felt, we knew we were not in danger. We had the resources to secure enough water for drinking, hand washing, and even flushing. As for the olfactory comfort of the people around us, some friends invited us to come shower at their house that evening. My students would be spared the nosegays.
On day three I woke determined not to let the situation get me down. I channeled my inner Laura Ingalls Wilder and decided to take advantage of all the new snow that was falling. I filled all available buckets as well as my stockpots. That evening, we would use the melted snow to flush the toilets. I marveled at my cleverness. My son, celebrating my new-found pioneer spirit, showed me a game to download on my iPad called “Where’s My Water?” He taught me how to win the game by getting the water to the alligator. I have to say, I rocked.
Later that day, I wandered through the grocery store, desperate to plan and prepare a meal for my family, thinking it would give me some semblance of normality, send the message that we have not been defeated so soon, that we don’t need no stinking water anyways. I think that I will make a turkey. Then the reality sets in. How will we prepare the carcass? How will we wash our hands after handling the poultry? How will we clean the roasting pan? The amount of water this will consume outweighs the pleasure a Thanksgiving-like feast will bring. I settle for a spiral-sliced ham and a disposable aluminum tray. As I contemplate my privileged ability to side-step choosing between water to consume, water to clean, and water to cook, I start thinking about the larger implications. I am saving water because none is flowing into my meter. But I’m buying it in plastic jugs that almost certainly were manufactured with harmful chemicals that seep into the contents. From Wal-Mart, no less. While I avoid wasting my water resources by washing dishes, instead, I’m adding the jugs and bottles and plastic plates and plastic cutlery to the landfills. We debate investing in the local economy and just eating at a different restaurant every night, but I swear I’ve gained five pounds in the last few days. Our politics, nutrition, budget, and routine are all in flux.
When I get home, I learn a stockpot of snow melts to about a depth of about two inches. Not quite what I expected.
We are now on the tenth day without water. We are inconvenienced and stressed, to be sure, and we are anxiously waiting to see how long it will be before we have a thaw. I feel a strange affinity with women of the past, and a deeper appreciation for the struggles of people around the world. But the reality is that I am becoming increasingly aware of the distance between our situation and theirs. As I strain my ears, hoping for the sound of water returning to our pipes, I try to remember how lucky we are. Our lives are not in danger. We have heat, food, and access to the Internet. We even have plenty of water to drink. Between the generosity of friends, access to the college’s wonderful recreation center with separate faculty/staff locker rooms, and the nearby laundromat, we even have clean(ish) bodies and clothes. We are struck by the strange correlation between our inconvenience and our privilege. I imagine that these are problems a good portion of the Earth’s people who live without water security would be happy to have.
(Note: We ended up being without water in our home for 30 days. It was a miserable month that was made much, much better by the generosity of friends who opened their homes to us for bathing, laundry, and overnights, and brought us delicious meals in disposable dishes. We are now very grateful for “modern conveniences,” and we made donations at Water.org and charity:water in appreciation of what we take for granted.)