Last night, I washed my clothes in my new flat for the first time. In the UK, that would be a complete non-story. But nothing is ever simple in Bolivia.
In this flat, the washing machine’s drainage hose isn’t permanently in a drain. We have to put the hose into the shower – but first, we fill a storage bin. The waste water, we use to flush the toilet. This is to save water.
Bolivia, and Cochabamba in particular, has been struggling from such a severe drought that a state of emergency has been declared. People in hard-hit rural areas have been receiving food aid. Bolivia’s second-largest lake, Lake Poopó, dried up in December 2015.
This has devastated the lives of the Uru communities living on what used to be the shores: as people who lived by fishing the lake, hunting water birds, and working with reeds, they are not used to skilled labour or keeping livestock. The community leaders I spoke to said this had reduced families to migrating for the least skilled manual labour and harvesting other people’s fields in return for some of the produce.
Although we have plenty of water in my part of the city, we recycle it anyway, because we know its value.
I stood by the bin, watching the dirty water pouring in, astonished at how fast such a big drum was filling up even though the washing machine was set to”eco”. It kept pouring out into the shower long after the bin was full. What we collected was less than half of the water.
Watching this so soon after visiting communities devastated by drought gave me a feeling something akin to a small child realise that for them to eat meat, somebody had to kill an animal. All this time, I had been wasting so much water, and it barely even crossed my mind. It was the first time I had visually appreciated how much water a laundry load uses. I never dreamed it would be so much. I felt the urge to get another bin, to save and re-use all of the water.
UK mains water is drinkable, while in many communities in Bolivia, people have to drink water delivered by dirty water tanks because they have no other option. That means we Brits, and residents of many other rich countries, take the most pristine water and pour it straight into the washing machine, from where it goes straight down the drain. Before I came here, I had never heard of anyone recycling dirty laundry water to flush the toilet. I wouldn’t even have known how to take the hose out of the drain in London. I can’t even begin to imagine how many litres of water that is over my lifetime. Swimming pools of the stuff.
In the UK, there are a lot of people who think it’s unacceptable not to shower every day, who flush the toilet every time, even after the tiniest wee. Having lived here, this attitude seems profligate, positively licentious. Every week I see imploring e-mails and workplace announcements not to use water, to take brief showers. Even in nice bars and clubs, you learn to carry hand sanitiser, because you turn on the taps and nothing comes out. There isn’t enough water for the utility company to provide it to everyone every day.
When Bolivians wash up, they moisten the sponge, scrub the plates, and then turn the tap on to very quickly rinse them. There are stickers all over the place, produced by the local water company, telling us to brush our teeth using a glass, rather than under the running tap.
I am not an ecologist. I’m not saying that Bolivia’s endemic water issues, which are incredibly complex, would be solved if Europeans started chucking their laundry effluents down the toilet. But living here has transformed how I see water.
Even as one of the least affected, to me this drought is a sinister reminder that water really is a valuable natural resource. Much as we only really feel the value of money when we’re running out, only value time with a person when we can’t see them, this has made me feel viscerally that our access to freely flowing, crystalline drinking water is not a constant. It is something that the vast, omnipotent system that is our unhappy climate can and does take away. All too often, that doesn’t even cross our minds until it’s too late.