How the Amazing Gift of Clean Water Changed My Life and My Heart

The Gift of Clean Water – Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

When we moved our family from the US to a little Caribbean island for 2 years, I really had no idea what to expect. I pictured the turquoise blue waters, pristine sandy beaches and palm trees that I’d seen in pictures. I figured it would be warm and sunny. I knew Antigua was a poorer country than the United States but I didn’t truly understand what that meant for day to day living.

turquoise blue waters of Hawksbill Beach in Antigua
Hawksbill Beach, Antigua

Stepping out of the airport that August afternoon we arrived on Antigua felt like being in a sauna fully clothed. The travel time to get here was 30 hours and we were sleep deprived and travel weary. We were met at the airport by our realtor and a dear American couple whom we had been in contact with via email. They helped us get our 22 bags, 3 car seats, double jogging stroller and 5 children from the airport to our new “home”. It took 3 vehicles. I’m sure we looked like a crazy circus.

trying to fit a lot of suitcases into a vehicle
Trying to fit our suitcases into a vehicle.

What have we done?

All I can say about that first day was that it felt surreal. That day happened to me but it felt like I was watching it from outside of myself. Everything was different and new and well…foreign. Traffic drives on the left. The roads are narrow and bumpy. Even though the people were speaking English, I could only understand maybe, maybe 60% of what was being said. To my tired and weary mind, everything looked dirty and broken and old.

We had no phone service, no internet, no wifi, no maps, no idea of how to get around. There are no addresses here either. I mean, how do you even give directions without addresses?? It was completely unfathomable to me. In our uber-connected world, it was such a strange and isolating feeling. We couldn’t let any family members know we had arrived safely or stuff down our worries and exhaustion with a few episodes of Netflix. And it was so miserably, stiflingly hot. We joke – though we’re not really joking – that the only reason we lasted through that first day is that we had absolutely no idea how to get back to the airport.

Shopping for Basics

When you move on an airplane, there are many things that you need but that, unless you have access to a magic wand or a ‘Honey, I shrunk the kids’ machine, you just cannot fit into a suitcase. Like a garbage can. Or a broom. And food, of course, food. So we headed out to the grocery store, following the couple who met us at the airport – bless their souls- for food and some basic supplies.

Living on a tiny island, practically everything has to be imported. Which makes prices higher and often for lower quality items. It took us 2 hours to get through the grocery store. We were tired, irritable and suffering both sticker and culture shock. I have never seen such a picked over produce department, with only wilted and bruised items left on the shelves. (Turns out that was a one day fluke – but I didn’t know it at the time.) We spent $400US (double our prior weekly grocery budget) for about 4 days worth of food and basics. I was sickened. And wondering what in the world we had gotten ourselves into.

Since the water that comes out of the pipes is not safe to drink here, one of the things we had to buy was drinking water.

yellow tap water in bathtub
Tap water
2 liters of water in plastic bottle
Store water

Until Antigua, I had always lived someplace with safe drinking water straight from the tap, or through an in-door refrigerator water filter.

I had no idea how much that one small thing – not having safe water – would significantly change my life.

It’s meant so many little changes, like:

  • Taking water everywhere we go.
  • Sketchy sanitation conditions in public bathrooms (sometimes with no flushing water or hand washing water.)
  • Not using tap water to brush our teeth or wash fruits and vegetables.
  • Worrying about how much water it takes to boil pasta and wash lettuce. I dearly, dearly love lettuce but it quickly became a luxury simply because of the amount of water it takes to wash it thoroughly.

It takes our family about 3 gallons of clean water to keep us hydrated and use in cooking each day. Because we are on a tight budget, we tried to limit the amount of water we purchased from the store. Getting enough water for our family of 7 quickly became a task that occupied about 4 hours of my time each day and much of my mental bandwidth.

Water in Antigua

Here’s how the water supply works for us in Antigua. There is a water shortage here so the government makes water available to only certain portions of the island at a time. We get “government water” through the pipes to our home approximately two times per week. The other days those pipes are dry.

Our house has rain gutters to capture any rainwater and routes it to an underground water holding tank, called a cistern. We have an electrical pump that pulls water from the tank to the house pipes, giving us on-demand access to water in the house.

Coming from the US where we always had clean fresh drinking water straight from the tap, even ice cold water from the fridge dispenser, this was a big adjustment and felt like a huge step-down. And yet with our cistern and pump, we are much better off with water than most people on the island. Cisterns and pumps are high ticket items that many people just cannot afford.

Antiguans gather rainwater in containers kept in the yard or they visit a neighborhood spigot and fill containers up with government water when it is available.Getting government water from the street spigot

To ensure that our cistern doesn’t run out of water, (which we learned the hard way) on the days when we have government water, we fill the cistern with a hose.  We use cistern water for bathing, laundry, and flushing toilets.

Drinking water is a whole other story.

Since we need to live frugally here, we’ve tried a few different methods over the past 20 months to get clean, drinkable water for cooking, washing foods, and drinking.

Boil and Filter method

The first method we tried was to boil and filter the tap water. Each night we would fill our gigantic 8 qt. electric pressure cooker with water and run it through a 5-minute cycle. If we remembered to take the lid off first thing in the morning, the water would be cool enough to filter by mid-morning.8 qt electric pressure cooker

Then I would put the boiled water through a Brita water filtering pitcher that we brought with us. Brita water filter pitcher with filterWith a brand new filter, that took about an hour of standing in the kitchen, pouring the boiled water in, letting it filter through, pouring the clean water into containers in the fridge, and repeating until all 8qts. were filtered.

But, what mom with young children at home has time to stand in the kitchen for a full hour straight just filtering water? Inevitably I would need to attend to this child or that child or hang the laundry on the line or whatever. And I constantly had to remind myself to go back to the kitchen and finish filtering the water. It had to be at the top of my mind. All. The. Time.

Because of all the rust and contaminants in the water, a Brita carbon filter lasted about one month. If the filter was nearing the month mark, the filtering process took hours longer. Hours of an infuriatingly slow drip, drip, drip of clean water through the dirty filter. Ugh, just remembering it makes me want to pull my hair out.

It took all day.

And then each evening after the dinner dishes were done it was time to start the process all over again. I felt completely tethered to the kitchen and the water filtering process. It was miserable. 

By this point, your eyes are probably starting to glaze over and your mind is wandering because it is so boring thinking about filtering water. And you are absolutely right. That’s the point I’m trying to make. It’s super boring. I can think of about a million things I would rather do with my time.

After months and months of doing this, we started to run low on filters. We had brought several with us but to get replacement filters on island cost $58US for a 6 pack. So we decided to try buying drinking water instead.

Buying 5-gallon Bottles Method

At our local neighborhood store, we could buy a filled 5-gallon container of water for $25.55US, (including a one time deposit of $19). Then when we ran out, we could take the empty water container and exchange it for a full one for $5.55.neighborhood market store

Game changer! I can’t even tell you how much easier and happier that made my life. I got a beautiful gift of time back in my life. I could do something more valuable and fulfilling than filter water all day.

large 5 gallon water bottleNot wanting to waste the pricey bottled water on food prep and cooking, I continued to boil and filter some water to use for those things every couple of days. But even that wasn’t ideal. We went through about 2.5 of those 5-gallon containers per week for drinking water. And that started to put a strain on our already tight grocery budget.

Fill it Yourself Method

A few months later, the store put in a Osmosis water filtering machine in the parking lot where we could refill the 5-gallon container ourselves for $3.70US instead of exchanging for an already full one. Osmosis water filtering machineThat was definitely cheaper but not necessarily easier. It required hauling heavy 5 gallons of water multiple times per week, standing in the hot parking lot while the water filtered, and of course, driving to the store every couple of days. Not ideal, but overall, a much, much better situation than the boiling and filtering. And it cost 33% less than the prefilled bottles which added up to be significant savings.

Berkey to the Rescue

About 15 months after we arrived, our dear friends, the US couple who met us at the airport and helped us settle in here, moved back to the United States. That was a hard goodbye but the silver lining is that they sold us their Berkey water filter (Amazon affiliate link) when they left. The Berkey water filter is a life changer. Berkey water filter tank

All I have to do is put in the yucky tap water and a short time later, it gives out filtered, beautifully clean drinking water, easily dispensed. The two filters last for 6000 gallons (about 5 years) and are very effective at removing all water contaminants. The Berkey water filter was worth every single penny and then some.

It not only gave me inexpensive water, it gave me my life back. I left the kitchen. I read some books, laughed with my kids, learned how to bullet journal, and started writing a blog. No longer do I have to spend hours each day worrying and working to get drinkable water. The only mental energy I need to use on water is to remember to fill up the Berkey a couple times each day and clean it once per month.

Why am I telling you this long story about my water woes?

It is not so you will feel sorry for me. It is because these experiences have helped me realize, to the depth of my soul, the importance of having access to clean water and how a lack of it can be completely burdensome, especially for women.

As hard as it might have seemed to me, to go through the trouble of getting clean water, it is nothing, absolutely NOTHING compared to what millions of women face every single day to get water for themselves and their families.

One of my best friends here just got water into her home last fall just before the birth of her third baby. But the pressure isn’t high enough so most days it’s just a trickle. To get water, she walks up the street to a spigot and hauls it back to her home, with 3 kids age 4 and under. Laundry takes up a huge portion of her day. No washing machine, just hauling gallons of water, scrubbing clothes by hand, hanging to dry, and then ironing. All while caring for her family, working on her bachelor’s degree online and running a home-based business.

But many places it is much worse. Across the world, women sacrifice education, financial growth opportunities, time, money and even health and safety just to get water. To get water – because none of us can live without it. And my heart understands better now the sacrifice they make just to try to keep their families alive.

Worldwide Water Crisis

Worldwide, 844 million people, or roughly 1 in 10, lack access to a safe water source close to their home. 31% of schools don’t have clean water.

Did you know that:

  • Diarrhea is the 3rd leading cause of death in children worldwide.
  • Every minute a newborn dies from an infection caused by lack of safe water and an unclean environment.
  • If everyone, everywhere had clean water, the number of diarrheal deaths would be cut by a third.

If -and I believe we are- we’re all God’s children, why do some of us have easy access to all the clean water we could ever want while others struggle for it their whole lives? It could have been me, walking miles a day, hauling heavy containers full of dirty water for cooking, washing, drinking. That could have been my life – missing the chance to go to school, or to help my family financially, or being unable to save my child from water-borne disease.

It could so easily have been me. It could so easily have been you. But it’s not.

Instead, we can be part of the solution.

Here’s the thing. Most of us reading this will never lack access to good water. We probably won’t even know anyone who does. But we can all do something to help those 1 in 10 who do. We can help save a baby. We can help a daughter go to school. We can help a mother have a happier, healthier, less burdensome life.

There are many people and organizations working to solve this problem and get clean water and sanitation to communities and individuals. They are making progress one person, one project, one small thing at a time. A few years ago, it was 1 in 8 that didn’t have access to clean water. Today 1 in 10. That’s exciting progress.

Here are just a few of the organizations working to get the amazing gift of clean water to all the world:

Wateraid.org

“We are WaterAid. We provide clean water, decent toilets, and hygiene education. 24.9M people reached so far and counting. Join us and reach everyone, everywhere!”

LDS Charities

“OUR MISSION: Provide communities with clean water sources, improved sanitation facilities, and proper hygiene training.

OUR APPROACH: Our clean water program uses community participation—donations of time and skills—to organize an intricate network of volunteers and temporary staff. We use equipment and materials that are easy to repair and can be acquired locally to create freshwater systems and latrines for communities around the world.”

2016 IMPACT: 19 Countries, 380,000 people served.”

(I know with this organization, every dollar donated is spent on humanitarian projects and services.)

Here is a video about one of their projects:

Water.org

“Millions of people around the world could get access to safe water in their homes with the help of small, affordable loans. That’s where Water.org comes in. We are here to bring safe water and sanitation to the world through access to small, affordable loans. There is both a need and demand for these loans, because when people have access to safe water, they get time back to go to school, earn an income and take care of their family. It changes their world.”

There are many, many other organizations too. I once helped with a large service project for an organization who collects gently used shoes and sells them to a company in Africa. We collected enough shoes to fill a whole semi-truck trailer. The organization then uses the money from the shoe sale to build wells in different locations in Africa. Ingenious.

You can volunteer time. You can donate money. You can spread the word. You can help bring the gift of clean water to all the world.

Clean water. It’s a small thing. But it’s absolutely completely life-changing.

Try this small thing today:

With your next drink of water, feel deeply grateful – to your core – for the gift of clean water in your life. Thank God for it. And thank the hundreds of people whose work makes it possible.

If you’re financially able to, consider making a donation to an organization of your choice to help some girl or woman somewhere have a life that’s bigger and brighter and more fulfilling than hauling and purifying water.

Let’s chat:

What gift does clean water give to you? Know any other reputable organizations taking clean water to the world? Let us know in the comments.

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