Got Water? Posted on November 1st, 2009 by

In the land of 10,000 lakes, we tend to take water for granted. We swim in it in the summer, it always comes out of the faucet and we water our lawns with it in the middle of the day. In Tanzania things are a little different.

Water is a commodity. In a developed nation with extensive aquifers and surface water, we consider water as abundant as air. But across much of the globe, water is a scare commodity. In developing countries some women walk for hours and have to stand in line just to fill up a container of water. Next time you turn on the faucet in your kitchen sink, think about that for a moment.

Here in Tanzania, we are a the very end of the dry season. Across much of the country, water is hard to find. We are lucky. Being situated on Mt. Kilimanjaro means we have more water than other areas thanks to the melting snows and runoff. Even though our water source is more reliable than in other areas, it is still less consistent than water in the States. Periodically, the water is shut off and we are left high and dry (pun intended) for an average of one to three hours. Eventually it will come back, but you never know when it might get shut off again. Some days we only have a couple hours of ‘water time’. This, as you can imagine, makes simple activities – like showering and washing dishes – a challenge.

Okay, go back to your faucet. What do you notice about the temperature of your water? It can get pretty hot, right? Have you ever stopped to consider your hot water? It’s rather convenient. Before this year, I never thought much about hot water, other than it was nice after coming in from the bitter Minnesotan winter winds. Now, I have come to appreciate hot water on a new level. If you want a hot shower here you have to first turn on the hot water heater. And then you wait. In thirty minutes, if you’re lucky, you will have a nice warm shower. But don’t dally – there is only enough warm water for one short shower. Sometimes you aren’t so lucky. Electricity is only slightly more reliable than water. If the power is off, you’re stuck with a cold shower. If the water is off, you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow.

When is the last time you bought bottled water? Why did you do that? You just paid a dollar for something that comes out of your tap for free. In the States, the water that comes out of the faucet is totally safe. Here, it is not. Whereas in the States it is frivolous to buy bottled, in Tanzania it is a necessity. Water that comes out of the faucet here is not treated. If you want a glass of water or to brush your teeth, you have to purchase bottled water or boil your own. Fortunately, bottled water costs much less in Tanzania. One and a half liters of purified water costs only 50¢. Unfortunately, even this trivial cost adds up over time. Your other alternative is to boil water. Boiling water is not a difficult task by any means. Except when you don’t have electricity. Or water. Then its a challenge. For the most part, its a manageable job. But when you have to boil two pots a day, it does get a bit tiresome. And when you have to boil your water, water conservation is a no brainer. I find myself carefully rationing water when I brush my teeth and rinsing dishes with the absolute minimum. (When you wash dishes, you can’t just rinse from the tap. The water must first be boiled. This creates an art of rinsing dishes with the least amount of water possible so you don’t have to boil another pot.)

So consider that next time you take a shower, grab for bottled water, or wash the dishes. If you’re feeling adventuresome, take the water challenge. Try rinsing your dishes with a pot of boiled water or shut off the water for the day. And remember, water is a commodity – don’t take it for granted.



  1. Barry Finlay says:

    I enjoyed your article. My son and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in January and since then have been raising money to build classrooms and drill a well in Mwanza, Tanzania. They are in desperate need of clean, safe water.

  2. Barbara Keith says:

    I can imagine that unreliable water and electricity create a totally different flow for a day’s activities!

    I can relate a little to the water issues from camping experiences: hauling water to the campsite and having to heat the water on the camp stove for washing and rinsing dishes; brushing teeth with less than one glass of water. I guess I have never camped at a site with electricity, but living that lifestyle voluntarily for a few days is much different than not having any other option!

  3. Robert Shoemaker says:

    Thanks for you insight on water usage. I intend on sharing your thoughts with my Ecology students. It’s hard to visualize water in this way when we live in a water excessive part of the world.