On one of my first days at site, I woke up at my usual 5 am. I stretched, emptied my pee bucket (yes, really), fed my dog, and headed to the tap to collect the day’s water. I’m not exactly a morning person, so when I turned the tap but nothing came out, I assumed I was operating it incorrectly in my blurry-eyed morning haze. I tried again – still nothing.
Lesotho, and Southern Africa more generally, is currently experiencing a period of extreme drought. It’s the worst, in fact, in over 20 years. Right now is supposed to be the rainy season in Lesotho, but it’s bone dry. No significant rains are expected until March, and that’s months too late. People better informed than I am have speculated about the drought’s cause – El Nino, climate change, the adverse effects of building dams – but all I know are the day-to-day impacts.
I went to the tap, and there was no water.
I’ve lived in Southern California, where talk of drought is endless. I thought I was aware of the situation’s severity, and I thought I was doing my part to conserve water. I took short showers and only flushed for number two, but besides that, I didn’t really think about it.
Here, it would be impossible to go a day without thinking about the drought. This is real, it’s immediate, and it’s scary. There isn’t a person in Lesotho who hasn’t been impacted.
For example, my host brother from my training village runs a farming collective. It’s successful, with funding from the World Bank and World Vision. He’s a good businessman, who has thought previously about applying to fellowships in the United States. This year, because there was no rain, there was no harvest. As a result, to make ends meet, he’s interviewing for jobs in mines that would require him to leave his wife and infant son to do dangerous work.
I’ve never before been so aware of every drop of water that I use. There are four main ways I use water every day: washing dishes, bathing, drinking, and cooking. Once a week, I also use water for laundry.
I’m also more aware of exactly how much water I’m using for these activities. I have two 20 liter buckets in my house to hold water. Every other day, I walk to the tap and collect 20 liters. There is also a small stream where I can collect additional bathing water if needed, although this isn’t considered clean enough for drinking or cooking. That means I’m using about 10 or 12 liters a day – 10 carefully planned, recycled if possible, liters of water.
I’m not going to die of thirst. On that morning when my tap first ran dry, I walked an additional mile to a further tap that was still running. I’ve been using that further tap consistently, and as long as I get there before 6 am, there’s enough water to keep me satisfied.
If things were to get really bad – if, say, all taps within walking distance were to dry up – I still wouldn’t be stranded. Peace Corps would work with my family and my supervisor to find a solution, potentially including delivering me a giant water storage basin. This is unlikely, since the situation isn’t as bad in my mountain village, but they have already done so for several volunteers in my training group who live in the lowlands. In the past year, one volunteer was even forced to switch to a safer site because the drought hit his village so hard.
In development studies classes you learn a lot about insecurity. It’s a defining characteristic of poverty – if you’re extremely poor, chances are you wake up without knowing where that day’s food or water is going to come from. This kind of insecurity is incredibly stressful. It takes its toll in more ways than one, affecting every decision an individual makes. I’m experiencing the insecurity of drought as a visitor, but for my loved ones in Lesotho, the safety net of Peace Corps doesn’t exist. My Basotho family and friends must get water somewhere, or they will die.
There isn’t usually a lot of media attention for “slow” disasters like drought. It doesn’t have the front-page potential of an earthquake or a tsunami, but it is just as scary and just as damaging. The government of Lesotho recently declared a state of emergency, and they are working to find solutions.
Until then, we wait for rain.