The town water system in León was shutdown for nearly 48 hours last weekend.  Rumors were that an electical plant failed to provide the energy needed to pump water.  The water stopped before dawn on Friday, and didn’t come on until late Saturday night.

Luckily, I live in the Sutiaba neighborhood – the old indigenous part of the city – and we are already lucky enough to have a water cut nearly every single day.  I’ve learned well the Nica habit of filling up tubs and and plastic trash cans every night before I go to bed while the water pressure is good.  If I don’t make it out of bed by 6:30 am, I’m bathing with a bucket and a little plastic bowl.  Since I often work outside the house, it’s not such a big deal.  A nuisance, but it’s necessary to have patience with these things living abroad, and it’s not like I’m alone.  Sutiaba is a rather large neghborhood of León, a city of 150,000, so I am accompanied every day in my bucket baths by hundreds of other folks dealing with the same.

48 hours is different.  For the first day, all is well.  Blissfully ignorant, while the rest of the city panicked we just used our barrels of water like we do every day.  Until when the problem wasn’t fixed, we discovered we couldn’t fill them up again that night.

Rumors flew – the farm six blocks south and 3 km west was giving out water if you bring a truck and barrels, the neighbor’s brother-in-law’s cousin has a well two blocks north, the town paid for 5,000 gallons of water for the hospital but aren’t doing anything for the rest.  Trucks started passing in the street shouting, “Water for sale!” while the pulperias on the corner spiked the prices of bottled water.

What’s the first thing you think of when you realize there is no more water?  Drinking.  I need water to drink.  If not, I’m paying for whatever I drink – soda or bottled juice or drinks.

Bathing – Nica’s are impecably clean, very aware that the combined effects of the hot tropical sun on skin pores leads to sweat and unpleasant stink.  No one ever leaves the house before bathing.  I wonder if perfume sales rose during the 48 hours?

Washing – well, the dishes in the sink sure gathered flies for two days.  I half expected the health ministry to close the downtown restaurants and bars, but they stayed open.  I consulted a friend and found they paid to have water trucked in from outside the city in barrels in order to keep business up and running.  And the laundry can wait, for a little while at least.

But Flushing Toilets can not wait.  In the photographs published about the situation, I wonder how much of the water, refered to as “the vital liquid” in one of the national newspapers, ended up being used to flush?  The joke became that even precious rum became more valuable as a potential liquid to flush toilets than as a drink.  The situation in public restrooms was dire.

Only 0.63% of the world’s water is potable at any given moment; the rest is held in salt-water oceans, ice caps, glaciers, bodies of organisms like us and plants, and in vapor.  When there were five people in my house during the water cut, half of our saved water went to flushing the toilet.  All of a sudden a difficult situation becomes desperate – do I drink and hold it in, or be thirsty but relieve myself?  What a terrible decision!

Our solution was clear – go to Achuapa, where the community we visit not only has water but also has dry composting toilets.  A much more technified and improved version of an outhouse, the dry composting toilets separate urine and feces, eliminating odors and allowing the feces to dehydrate and compost faster.  Not only did they have water in Achuapa (they all have their own wells) but the toilets don’t need any water anyway.  Hand-pumping your own water certainly helps you get your priorities straight – water for drinking please, not for the can!

Many people say the next world war will not be fought over petroleum but over water.  Clean potable water is already a scarcity in many tropical countries – without increasing the amount of water uban dwellers flush away un-drinkable.  If the 48 hour scurry for water in Leon lasted any longer, there would have been a serious hygienic disaster.  And our continued contamination of potable water makes that frighteningly  not so far in the future.