Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Day 32 – Visiting under false pretenses

We spent the night in a small hotel in the mountains, and spent the following morning talking to different community groups that face an alarming shortage of water. This is a region with quite a bit of rainfall, but without electric power or drilling technology they have to rely on hauling water from a spring or a shallow well for their most basic needs. I suggested they should harvest the rain that falls on their tin roofs (a 100 square meters roof receiving a meter of rainfall during the year amounts to 100 cubic meters of water, or 100,000 liters per year; assuming a person requires 50 liters per day, or about 20,000 liters per year, the roof of a regular house can provide the water needs of a family of five), but always met the same dispirited response: plastic tanks and gutters are expensive, and how are they to pay for them. Maybe a wealthy “American” like me could give them the money?

Later we took the long and dusty road to Lake Victoria. I should have been delighted (and in a small way I was) about visiting one of the geologic wonders of the world, but looking at it from the eyes of a water resources specialist I felt my spirits sink. These people have really hard lives, working from can’t see to can’t see to scrape the most basic living from their harsh environment. Along the shores of Lake Victoria, within sight of the fourth largest lake in the world, people have little drinking water and nothing to irrigate their fields with. Water has to be fetched from the lake in 5-gallon jerry cans by the girls and women of the family (Charleen promptly rose to the challenge as you can see in the photograph), who carry it up to the homesteads for the most basic needs, while the men tend to small herds of rangy goats and cattle, or try to grow a few greens in the tough clayey soil.

Yes, water could be pumped up the hill, but they have no power, no money, and no fighting spirit left in them. I want to believe that they could use my suggestions about how to pump water out of the lake with wind power, and I am sure they could use Chico giving them some practical lessons on “do it yourself”, but they are convinced that the only way out is for someone (the government or a wealthy American) to build the necessary water infrastructure.

I have had the rather unkindly thought that farmers are chronically poor, for the simple reason that whenever they have a bit of cash they rush to buy additional land. And once they have bought the land they refuse to consider using it as collateral for taking a loan. In the rather gloomy way of farmers all around the world they assured me that their lands had no value, and that banks would not consider them a worthy security for a development loan. So we were back to the same point: Maybe a wealthy “American” like me could give them the money?

Even though I made it very clear that all I can offer is advice, I know they think I am a millionaire traveling incognito and looking for a worthy project to sink my money in. I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am visiting these good people under false pretenses.

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