Water Matters

Washing my hands under a flowing jugWater, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798)

Thus spoke the ancient mariner, becalmed in tropics. If you’ve never read this poem, click the link. It’s wonderfully bizarre, and I wonder what Coleridge was taking when he wrote it. (And does anyone know why he shot the albatross?) You don’t have to live in Addis Ababa very long before water becomes the focus of your attention. And its almost never drinkable.

Vaguely aware that Chris had just headed for the bathroom, I put some effort into waking up - we have to get to church. With a disconsolate snort Chris soon comes back into the bedroom. “What?” I grunt, through what looks like a sleepy fog (it’s actually a mosquito net). “No water,” she replies from the other side of the net, “But at least I’m not standing naked on a pipe tipping sewage over my head.” After a few confused seconds I realised what she was talking about. The day before, out of our kitchen window, we had seen a completely naked man, fortunately facing away from us, standing on a recently installed drainage pipe near the bridge construction washing vigorously. He was using water he had just drawn in a bucket from the river that runs next to Bingham. Eventually he tipped the remaining water in his bucket over his head, and without stopping (or using a towel) mercifully began dressing.

Building the bridge. Mr Naked was on the pipe, centre right...Our second-floor flat, atop a building on the very southern periphery of the Bingham compound, affords a birds-eye view of a bridge being constructed over the river. A river which not only inexplicably changes colour from white to brown to green at various times, but which is effectively the local sewer (if you have nowhere else to go, go in the river…) This is the water the local taxi-washing business uses on a daily basis, and is the water Mr Naked had just tipped over his head.

After church our water supply resumes. There’s a lot of washing up to do, and I get on with it despite the water (which I’ve run for several minutes) being a faint yellow colour. Sometimes you just have to press on regardless. At least the shower water looks clean, although you never know what’s living in it. The water pressure across the area has dropped recently, rendering our bathroom sink a pretty useless trickle. At least the shower is OK. And at least we don’t have to use river water.

On Wednesday mornings I do a clinic at Bingham Academy in a consulting room used only by me once a week. It has a sink, and this is one tap I always forget to run for several minutes after a loss of the water supply to the compound. So yet again, and to the enormous amusement of both my patient and my nurse, I go to wash my hands and brown water and air cough and splutter out of the tap, splashing brown stains all down the front of my white coat. A yelp, a backward jump, and I have to wait for a few minutes for the water to go from brown to grey to yellow to clear.

At least in that room it’s running most of the time. Unlike my consulting room at the HQ clinic. Breaks in the water supply to the clinic have become a daily occurrence. On Friday there was no water until after lunch – not a happy situation for a doctor with a bit of a tummy upset who needs a cistern full of water quite frequently, not to mention hand washing between patients. I always have a full bucket of water in my room. My wonderful caring and attentive staff will rush to help me and pour water from a jug for me to wash my hands when there’s none from the tap.

The consequences of a break in the clinic water supply can be quite drastic. It is extremely easy, when turning on a tap and finding no water, to leave the tap open. If the tap is open and everyone goes home and the water supply is restored overnight, it can flow so fast it overflows the sink. If that happens, the building is constructed in such a way that the water flows down to one end of the clinic and pours through the ceiling of the finance director's office in the room beneath, flooding his desk and causing poor relationships with the clinic staff. We try to avoid it, but with the best will in the world, it happens occasionally.

It’s the dry season (although we’ve had some unusual rain in recent days), and the city’s road network now sports quite a lot of central reservations and traffic islands covered with attractive grass, shrubs and trees. These of course need watering. The areas can be quite shady, and so not infrequently people are seen wiling away their days in the middle of the road under a tree. That is, until the water tanker turns up. For a city in which the water supply is so unreliable, there seems to be an endless supply of water to fill large water tankers that roam the streets hosing water on to the grass and trees in the middle of the roads, and also on to the people sitting there. The grass and shrubbery remain lush and green as the rest of the city withers under the blazing dry season sun.

The broken wall, the plastic bags, the tank gun barrel...The same small river running past Bingham Academy snakes its way south east through the city until it eventually flows past our church. Built in 1995, the church sits above the river with a retaining wall supporting the carpark. until recently that is, when a significant chunk of the wall and a part of the carpark split off and tumbled into the river. The lengths the church administration is having to go to in order to persuade the authorities to let us fashion repairs and stop more of our carpark disappearing would make a story in itself, but what’s most interesting is why this has happened. Sitting in a bend in the river, deflecting the water flow across and at the retaining wall causing it to be undermined, is a Russian tank. It’s been there since to fall of the Derg (the Marxist Ethiopian government) in the early nineties and used to be fully visible. It has gradually become buried in things that flow down the river – mostly plastic bags. The Ministry of Defence is reportedly going to remove it. If they do, I’ll be there with my camera.


This will make me very grateful for every drop of water I use today. Thank you for a healthy dose of perspective when our biggest water related problems is a broken dishwasher. Pales into insignificance in comparison. And why not have a tank in a river?!

Hi Dad, thanks for that.  It is good to remember that with everything going on at least we can still drink the water here.  Amazing what you get used to.

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