By Somdyuti Datta Ray Mar. 22, 2020
The current coronavirus pandemic is a reminder of how we need to use our resources sustainably. For us, hand washing is routine, but for many marginalised people across the world, it’s a luxury. In slums and refugee camps, where supply is erratic they need to ration their water.
We’re fighting a deadly enemy. It’s sneaking up on the youngest of us, the oldest of us. On the frontline are our soldiers in their white coats, armed with masks, saving lives from the enemy’s maw. For those of us stuck inside our homes, there’s only one way to join the fight – stay in and wash our hands for a good 20 seconds with soap.
But as we are desperately doing everything we can to contain the coronavirus pandemic, are we mindful of another catastrophe which has been looming large for a while? The water crisis. Yes, washing hands is what might save us today, but what about tomorrow, when all of this is behind us?
The world’s short of water. “Countries that are home to one-fourth of the world’s population are facing the prospect of running out of water,” according to a New York Times report. “From India to Iran to Botswana, 17 countries around the world are currently under extremely high water stress, meaning they are using almost all the water they have, according to new World Resources Institute data.”
We saw this in Chennai in August 2019. A city of almost 11 million people, scrambling for water as reservoirs ran dry.
In August 2019, Chennai, a city of almost 11 million people, scrambled for water as reservoirs ran dry. Guy Smallman/Getty images
In August 2019, Chennai, a city of almost 11 million people, scrambled for water as reservoirs ran dry.
Guy Smallman/Getty images
Yes, coronavirus is the bigger problem right now. A pandemic, in all its colossal probability, puts the immediate threat in the rearview. Statistics lighting up our phone and television screens; former patients recounting their hospital days. The stories of loss and recovery are interrupted by the pleas for water in cities like Durgapur and Rajkot. But that’s the past two months. What about before that?
How do we admit, without sugarcoating, that we are not careful with our water? We leave the tap running, use the shower without much thought, and let our buckets overflow.
A few years ago, I lived with a flatmate who followed a strict sequence of laundry. First came a bucket of water to soak all the dirty clothes of the week. The clothes were scrubbed, beaten, and washed under running water, and put into a fresh bucket of water. Then, they were taken out and washed again. Our rooms smelt like fresh laundry all day. This rigorous exercise frequently reminded me of my neighbour back home. They would never turn off the bathroom tap on laundry days, which in average Indian households, is every day. The tap would keep running until there was no drop in any of the apartments— a recurring episode in many residential buildings in India, I’d assume.
But the current coronavirus pandemic is, in a way, a reminder of how we need to use our resources sustainably. For us, hand washing is routine, but for many marginalised people across the world, it’s a luxury.
In refugee camps from Syria to Bangladesh to Kenya, millions live in cramped spaces, where even following basic hygiene is impossible. Many don’t have access to clean water, leave alone washing their hands several times a day. “You want us to wash our hands? Some people can’t wash their kids for a week. They are living outdoors,” Fadi Mesaher, the Idlib director for the Maram Foundation for Relief and Development in Syria told NYT.
In refugee camps from Syria to Bangladesh to Kenya, millions live in cramped spaces, where even following basic hygiene is impossible. Guy Smallman/Getty images
In refugee camps from Syria to Bangladesh to Kenya, millions live in cramped spaces, where even following basic hygiene is impossible.
Guy Smallman/Getty images
In the slums of India, where more than 65 million people live, the situation is equally stark. The water supply is erratic. There are neighbourhoods and towns across India without running water provisions at home. They need to ration their water to suffice washing hands an acceptable number of times.
There is a slum near our house, and every evening, like clockwork, the residents gather at the water tap by the street to collect water. The women talk about their children, husbands and the houses where they work as maids. These days, the conversations are about families enquiring their maids, how many times they are taking a bath and washing their sarees.
“I don’t have water at home. But my hands are clean because I’m washing dishes and clothes and cleaning floors all day,” a woman justifies.
She is just one among the 160 million of India’s 1.3 billion people who don’t have access to clean water. And they are the ones who are most vulnerable to the pandemic, as coronavirus cases continue to spike in the country.
It’s heart-wrenching to think of all the things we take for granted – like the availability of water.
I’m learning to let go of muscle memory, too. Like defrosting a bowl of fish or chicken under running water. Or like, listening to the running water when picking out food from my teeth and braces, so carefully that it’s almost cathartic. Or, tactfully standing under the shower, waiting, to rinse out the conditioner. Then there are moments when I don’t realise that the water is running — I’m lost in my thoughts, or I’m scrubbing my hands again and again and again. Sometimes, I’d do it all over, until my fingertips are pruney.
Some have the privilege to choose: themselves versus the planet; many don’t.
Yes, coronavirus is particularly difficult on those with anxiety and OCD. I’m one of the many who are living in fear or driven by compulsion, at this time. The news is terrifying, so is the possibility in all of the universes, to contract the virus. But sometimes, it escapes me that the world is hurting too. Some have the privilege to choose: themselves versus the planet; many don’t.
To those of us who have the choice to act on it, we can wash hands and prevent coronavirus. We can choose to be a little kinder — to the planet, to those around us. Step 1 is to simply turn off the tap when you are soaping your hands. The world doesn’t have too much water to spare.
Somdyuti Datta Ray is a writer and editor living in Kolkata. Her work has appeared in O.School, Horizon Guides, KrAsia, Outlook Business and elsewhere. She really likes cats, tea, Harry Potter, and binge-watching medical dramas and supernatural shows. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @hellodyuti