A place where running water is still a luxury

Living in America, we take the running water for granted.  Did you ever realize that, running water is still a luxury in many parts of this world, even in the 21st century?

According to a report by the World Health Organization in 2017, there are 2.1 billion people (close to 30% of world population) who lack safe drinking water at home.  And there are 4.5 billion people who lack safe sanitation.

And one of those places is the village where I grew up.  It’s located in the northern part of China.

How do they get water?

For most of the families over there, there is one well drilled at each yard, which is owned by one household.  A hand pump is installed.  By pushing and pulling the lever, the water is pumped out to the side.

My parents have been using this well and hand pump for over 30 years.

When I grew up, it was much worse.  There was no well in our old yard.  A common well was located on the street, and was shared by over 10 families.  There was no pump.  It was just a big and deep round-shape water hole, with the diameter of 4 to 5 feet.

A long pike pole was used to haul the big bucket of water out of the well.  During the winter, the surrounding areas of the well were so icy and slippery.  It was very scary to get the water.

As a young kid, I was told:  always stay away from the well.  The well was not covered, and anyone could get close to it as there was no barrier.  It was really a safety hazard for young kids.

Now looking back, I just wonder how we kept the water clean, as there was no well cover.  Probably, water cleanness was not a priority then.

That could be one of the reasons I got a healthy start, as I accessed a lot of unclean water and bacteria.  The body resistance was built early on.

The current hand-pump is not too bad.  At least, the well is covered.  But, the outdoor pit toilet is at the yard, too.  And the yard is small.  How to prevent the toilet stuff from sinking and penetrating to the water in the well?  The answer is:  no way.

You can imagine that, it’s not pretty.

When living there, I never thought about this question.  Only after I left and had access to running water, I started to feel uncomfortable every time going back.

Is it getting better now?

Several years ago, the local government completed a big project in that village.  The small water pipes were laid underground, and every household got a faucet at the yard.

Where does the water come from?  A much bigger and deeper well was drilled outside the village.  A powerful electric pump was used to distribute the water.

But, the water quality is still not guaranteed, as the water is not being processed or inspected.

Plus, the power outage is very common.  It happens once every couple of days, and each time lasts 6-8 hours.  I doubt the pump has generator hooked up.

In 2015 when I went back, my parents were so happy to see the water coming from the faucet.  But the water supply was not 24 hours a day.  It was only available for a couple of hours during the meal cooking time.  I had to laugh about the schedule.  Wow, need water?  You have to check the clock first.

As a result, my parents kept using the yard well as a backup.

A much worse place than my village:

Some of my relatives live in a village at the foot of bare mountains.  It’s about 13 miles from my village.  That place is even worse.

It’s a very dry place.  In some summers, it didn’t rain for months, and the wells dried up.  They had to walk with their donkeys for several miles to get water.  Most of the crops died.  Their lives are merely at the mercy of Mother Nature.

They treat water so preciously.  When washing hands, they use a water basin.  The same puddle of water is used over and over again by several people.

My time in Beijing:

I went to a college in Beijing in early 1980s.  The living condition in Beijing was much better.  But, we still had water problem in the summer once a while.

The college dorm I lived was a 5-story building.  All the girls were living at the top floor.  There were rooms at the two ends of the hallway to supply the running water.  Most of the time, water was running fine.

But in the hot summer, the water pressure was not enough.  The water on our floor could stop for hours during the day.  It was not fun when the temperature was in the 90s (mid 30s in Celsius), and no water.  We had to use the bucket, went to the lower levels where the boys lived, and got water from there.

The water supply room was next to the toilet room, and there was no door in between.  It was embarrassing for girls to go there.  But, there were two options: we either got stinky with no water, or got embarrassed by getting water.  We chose the latter.

My final thought:

Having lived in US for many years, I feel blessed in many ways.  Having access to clean running water 24 by 7 is one of them.

Early this year, one of my bathroom sinks was kind of clogged.  The water was still flowing down, but was super slow.  Each time, when washing my hands, suddenly I realized I had used probably half a gallon of water.

It was a guilty feeling to me.  The same amount of water could be used by many people in the world to cook a meal.

If you want to know more about China, please check my eBook, a mini-memoir on Amazon: “DAD’S BICYCLE: Journey of A Chinese Family”.

Do you feel blessed when using the running water?  Did you ever live a time when water was in shortage?

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8 Responses

  1. Good point Helen. There are many things we take for granted in the US that we shouldn’t. Electricity also comes to my mind. When ours goes out, it brings life to an inconvenient halt that we take for granted almost everyday. Tom

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Tom, electricity is a good example. We don’t realize the convenience until we lose it. One year in a hot July, we lost the power for 4-5 days. It really made the life upside down. But the good thing was, finally people came out of the house, biking or walking around.

  2. Bob says:

    Your post brings back memories of my childhood and though we had the luxury of and electric pump in our well, we did have a similar problem with our cattle lot affecting our water supply. Our well was only 20-25′ deep and we had anywhere between 200-300 cattle at all time in the lot close to the house. In the spring when the lot would thaw, the resulting sewage swamp was deep enough to need waders to walk through. Flat land with not much run off was the culprit, and so as kids we were sick quite a bit and probably from bacteria infected water. But it did make our immune systems much stronger and of course dad didn’t believe in going to the doctor, ever, so we just had to get better on our own.

    Great post, we do take so much for granted when just a few short years ago things were much different.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Bob, yeah, I saw the similarity. The wells in my village are not deep either. Every yard has one well, and one pit toilet. The average yard size is about 0.05 acre. The water in the wells could get polluted so easily. Surprisingly, it has never been a concern to the people over there.

      Though the water is usually boiled before people drink it, but the same water is used to wash the grocery, do the laundry, etc. It’s still not healthy to me. Yeah, when we got sick at that time, we didn’t go to the doctor either.

  3. Joe says:

    We’ve mostly lived in cities so we had running water most of the time. My parents lived in rural Thailand for a few years. I remember huge clay pots that was used to collect rain water. I don’t remember any pump, but I was very young then.
    Your community well sounds scary. I thought it would have a low wall around it at least.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      The huge clay pots are still being used at my parents’ place to store the water from the well. It sits inside the house, and looks so odd.

      Yeah, the community well is scary. I don’t know why people there didn’t put some barriers, at least to block the access for the young kids. Many things there just don’t make any sense.

  4. GYM says:

    Thanks for the reminder that we are very lucky here to have access to clean water. As a person born in North America, I take it for granted! 🙁

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      GYM, thank you. I guess people look at things in different perspectives, as each person’s background is so different. In terms of resources, environment and many aspects, yes, North America is great.

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