Saturday, May 2, 2009

Crisis in the Garden of Xanadu

Despite my earnest efforts to teach my neighbors how to treat their drinking water and to build improved latrines and soak pits, I have come to realize that my current lifestyle practices have an overall detrimental effect on Sanadougou's water supply.

It seems to me that when the Christian NGO set up shop in Sanadougou twenty years ago, they had a bit too much faith in Western technology – a conceit which I unfortunately inherited. Around the same time that they were building their residential quarters they also brought in engineers to put together a solar-powered groundwater pump and water tower to bring potable drinking water to robinets located in three locations throughout the town. At first the NGO personnel planned on placing one of those robinets directly inside the chain-link fence of their concession. I thank Jesus that the NGO apparently realized how completely awful the symbolism would have been of having a private supply of running potable water in a village where most people drink from parasite-laden wells; they ended up placing the robinet 50 meters outside the fence where it would be accessible to the public – technically.

Groundwater pumping can be fairly dubious in many environments, but it is not very harmful to the equilibrium of the water table when the quantity of water pumped is dwarfed by the annual recharge. In this Sahelian climate where the soils are supersaturated again every rainy season, the human impact on the water table by a single solar pump used for limited human consumption is quite negligible. Even if every single person in this village were to use the solar pump/robinet system to access uncontaminated groundwater for their personal drinking and cooking needs, any minor disruptions of natural water table levels are easily justified by the health benefits of reducing the transmission of giardia, dysentery, cholera, guinea worm, round worm and ring worm. In this society where the first two water-borne illnesses constitute a significant fraction of the infant and child mortality rates, it is no exaggeration to say that the value of groundwater resources as a source of potable drinking water can be measured in lives.

So after a decade of building schoolhouses and a kindergarten and a health clinic and a library and a playground in Sanadougou, the Christian NGO decided that they wanted to grow a garden. To Westerners who think of gardening as a weekend hobby, I don’t think that they understood just how much labor is required to irrigate even a small garden in a pre-industrialized Malian village. Most gardens in Sanadougou are really small – a seasonal okra patch, maybe a banana tree or two – because someone has to water that garden every single day with water pulled from well bags. Water is surprisingly heavy, and to repeat the motion of drawing well bag after well bag is remarkably strenuous and time-consuming. There are some larger gardens of perennial crops, and watering each one of those gardens with well bags is enough labor to constitute one person’s full-time job from September until the rains return in June.

So when the Christian NGO decided to build a garden in their concession, they planted 5 papaya trees, 5 guava trees, 5 banana trees, 4 lemon trees and an orange tree which remain to this day. To maintain moist, fertile soil around these trees requires approximately 1600 liters of water a day – to do this manually would require 80 large buckets, 40 trips to the well and back every 24 hours. I’ve tried watering this garden by hand many a times – But the NGO decided that they could avoid the hassle altogether and buy two plastic hoses to water their garden from the conveniently-located solar pump/robinet system. To Westerners who have lived all of their lives in developed countries where clean water is in such abundance that its perfectly ordinary to spend hundreds of dollars on mechanized sprinklers to irrigate their grass lawns with water that has been treated for human consumption, they probably did not think twice about irrigating this enormous fruit garden in Sanadougou with running water.

And like most Western do-gooders who come to Africa, after ten years the NGO had finished construction on all the buildings they intended to build and decided that their work here was now done. And like most Western do-gooders, they gave their residence and the garden and all the tools which came with it to the village of Sanadougou – because giving presents is the most effortless and instantly-gratifying mode of “aid”. And they gave the keys to a local fellow named Moussa so that he could water their score of fruit trees until the next resident came to live in the house, and in exchange for watering the trees in the meantime Moussa could take all of the fruit and also plant his own little annual plots of okra, beans and peppers.

As much as the NGO extension agents must have thought giving a massive fruit garden to a simple Malian peasant farmer to water with a plastic hose was a perfectly benevolent act of generosity, ten years after the fact it is pretty clear that was an enormous mistake. Plastic hose is a completely inappropriate technology to introduce to this society and in this climate, especially without providing any instruction or means to conduct proper maintenance. Polyethylene degrades over time, and this process is greatly accelerated when plastic is left exposed under the unforgiving African sun. Furthermore, in between the robinet and the garden was a dirt road, and for ten years Moussa left the hose to be crossed by tens of dozens of motorcycles and donkey carts each day. Battered by a medley of heat, dryness and acute pressure, to no one’s surprise this hose would spring leaks in the exact place where it was run over by donkey cart wheels.

Moussa had some pretty clever solutions to the leaky hose problem. Whenever a new hole would spring up, he would tie it closed with pieces of spare motorcycle tires; when these holes became so egregious that not even rubber could tie them up shut he would take a knife and cut off the offending section, cut off a piece of good hose from the end, and splice the two together with more moto-rubber. The new holes would always appear in the same place in the middle road where donkey carts rang over it, but Moussa kept on slicing and splicing and tying the hose together in such a way that the hose was migrating about itself. By the time that I arrived, this process had been going on for a decade and no more than 80 centimeters of this 70-meter hose remained intact. It was a veritable Frankenhose which got the job done adequately enough – but there were so many leaks that for every 3 liters of water which made it to the guava trees at least 1 liter would leak onto the dirt road. I don’t think it ever occurred to Moussa that if he hadn't left the hose in the middle of the road for 10 years then maybe it wouldn’t be such a piece of shit.

And when the village of Sanadougou applied for a Peace Corps Volunteer they offered the former NGO residence to be their house, so when I arrived last September this house and the garden became mine. When I arrived I took up the daily garden watering duties, and there was this plastic hose in the concession leading from the robinet and so I watered the orange, lemon, papaya, guava and banana trees with approximately 1600 liters of running water a day – not to mention the hundreds of liters of leakage onto the road - and to be honest I didn’t give it much thought either, for I’ve never watered a garden any other way. It’s not like I had a choice either – for there was no well in the concession, the robinet was the source proximate enough to get the job done. All I had to do was flip a switch and hang around in the garden every afternoon (the only time that sufficient water pressure would ever have accumulated from the solar pump to get water flowing), and as I waited for the hose to fill each tree’s individual furrow I could busy myself weeding furrows, pruning trees, annihilating termite nests or other small tasks.

Though eventually it dawned on me that something was wrong when went around the village doing my drinking water treatment lessons and everyone I talked to – even in the neighborhoods proximate to the robinet taps – told me that they always drank turbid, wormy well water. It’s not that they didn’t want to get potable water from the robinets – whenever women went to the fetch drinking water from the robinets they were always cut off. Part of this problem could very well be attributed to the fact that the solar pump is misused (women often use the fence around the solar array to dry their laundry), but a much more likely reason why the robinets were cut off was because I and the prior occupants of my house had been exhausting the very limited supply of potable, filtered groundwater during the entire ten years of this solar pump/robinet system’s existence.

By the time I finally put two and two together I felt like the world’s biggest douchebag. Here I am supposed to be helping the people in Sanadougou improve the quality of their drinking water, and every day I’m taking 2,000 liters of the best water in town and using it to water my papaya trees. That's enough potable drinking water for 40 adults to use for their daily drinking and cooking needs. What’s worse, each time I water the garden with this Franken-hose I’m taking another 500 liters of potable drinking water to water a big mud puddle in the street. I had to put an end to this.

I tried cutting this garden off of potable robinet water cold turkey. I talked to the doctor Diaraman next door and he said that I could water the garden with water from his well. So for about a week I would walk to his well with a pair of buckets and fill them with well bags and walk them to the garden, go back and do the same ad infinitum. Like I said, manually irrigating a garden is a pain in the ass. The degree of the pain in the ass of this chore could be expressed by the mathematical expression: (2.5 well bags to fill a bucket) x (4 buckets of water for each fruit tree) x (each bucket has to be carried 100 meters from the well to the tree) x [(5 papaya trees) + (5 guava trees) + (5 banana trees) + (4 lemon trees) + (1 orange tree)]. For a week I did next to nothing from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to sleep but pull well bags and haul buckets of water for this garden, and even then my efforts were so inadequate that all the trees started to wilt. The whole stint I could not help but think of how much of a waste of my time and taxpayer money this was, and after a week of manually irrigating 20 water-intensive fruit trees I threw in the towel.

Neither the public robinet and the Franken-hose nor my neighbor’s well was a satisfactory source of water. Towards the end of my experiment in manual irrigation I seriously considered taking my machete to every last tree in this garden and giving my jatigi a few months worth of firewood. The Raskolnikov in me thought that chopping down these fruit trees would put 2000 liters of robinet water back on the grid for people to drink, I would save hours each day that I could otherwise spend building nyegens and altogether benefit the general will of all society. I really considered doing it. However, as much as the lure of creative destruction appealed to me I realized that in a subsistence agriculturalist society where children are dying of malnutrition and people break their backs just to feed their families with millet goop and leaf sauce – and where most people are content drinking muddy well water anyway, it would be absolutely incomprehensible why anyone would take a machete to an enviable grove of papayas, guavas, bananas, lemons and oranges. No one would understand the boon for public health, and I would go down in Sanadougou history as the white guy who destroyed a perfectly good garden.

Faced with this dilemma, for the time being I have no choice but to continue watering the garden from the robinet. But if I am going to be misusing valuable resources, I might as well be misusing less valuable resources. So I dug a half-meter trench across the road, laid 25 meters of plastic pipe, added plastic elbows to each end and covered all but the ends up again with mud. At the moment I’m on my back from Bamako having just bought 100 meters of new rubber hose, so once I get back to site I can thread the rubber hose underground through the pipe and it will never be run over by motorcycles and donkey carts. And I am going to cover the rest with mud, sand and mulch so that it is protected from the elements and will not degrade. So for $100 worth of rubber hose and plastic piping and a week’s worth of labor I can water this garden with only 1440 liters of potable drinking water a day as opposed to 2,000 – a 28 percent decrease in the total misuse of this precious commodity. I also bought a good deal of small, clear, ultra-cheap siphon hose so that I can burn some holes with hot pins and make a drip irrigation system to lace throughout all the trees – if this works and I cover it all with more mulch to reduce evaporation, I can make my execrable misallocation of potable drinking water tremendously more efficient in terms of time and application.

This is a good start – but still quite a long way from weaning my garden from potable drinking water. To feel content on this modest achievement would be like my mom who traded her Ford Explorer for a Toyota Prius and now goes around thinking that by driving a hybrid she is saving the world from global warming – every time she drives her fuel-efficient car she’s certainly emitting less carbon dioxide than otherwise and that is certainly commendable, but she’s still burning petroleum and emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. I will not rest until I can water my fruit trees with zero liters of water from the solar pump/robinet system.

I needed a well. This was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision. This is the peak of hot season when the water table is at its absolute low point and thus the one window of opportunity I have for well-digging; though for insurance reasons Peace Corps Washington prohibits Volunteers from descending into wells without an appropriate helmet and safety equipment which I do not have. So I could either wait until all the paperwork went through to apply for well construction safety equipment and the climate aligned once again – which would be next year’s hot season – or I could pay someone else to do it now. So I rounded up Sanadougou’s best well-diggers and paid them the going rate – $80 – for an 8 meter well. It was kind of embarrassing being the Peace Corps Volunteer here to dig wells and not being able to so much as step foot inside the well, but I made up for my injured manhood by spending a week serving these nice men a constant supply of filtered, treated water and tea and sugar.

So now I have the equipment to lead a new rubber hose from the robinet underground to what will soon be a working drip irrigation system which will require no more work than a flick of a switch to water all of my papayas and bananas, two lemons and one guava tree - and I will also have a hole in the ground which I can use to water the rest of the guavas, lemons and the orange tree with buckets of well water. Once I have all of this set up by the end of the week I should be able to effortlessly irrigate the front row of trees with only 1040 liters of potable drinking water a day, and I can water all of the guavas, lemons and the orange tree in the back with only 28 buckets of water a day. Compared to a week prior, this garden will be consuming 48 percent less water from the solar pump/robinet system – but this irrigation overhaul will not be complete until those 1040 liters of potable drinking water which my papayas, bananas and lemons are consuming can be drunk by human beings.

The first thing I need to do is to do some top-well construction and build a concrete platform so that I can install a metal door so that I can pull water from the well when I need to and I don’t have to worry about James or Snoop chasing after lizards during the night and falling down to their watery demise. And I’m going to have to find some large, sturdy tree trunks or invest in some sort of finer material so that I can hand a pulley and reduce the workload in pulling well bag after well bag. Donné donné…

What I want to eventually do is to build a cistern with a storage capacity of 2,000 liters. I am going to build a platform fairly close to the well so that I can build the cistern at least 50 centimeters above ground, and the cistern itself is not going to be all that much different from the mud granaries which everyone in this town has in their concession – only my water granary is going to be built with concrete and lined with cement. And then I can buy a foot-powered Nafasoro pump so that I can put one hose down the well, the other in the cistern so that I can fill the cistern with well water. And by this point, I can attach the drip irrigation hosing to the cistern, and with an hour’s worth of pumping the foot pedals each day – which is kind of like working out on a stair machine – I can fill the cistern, turn a handle, and the garden will be watered with the force of gravity.

Once I have constructed the top-well platform, the cistern, and rigged it all together with a Nafasoro pump and drip irrigation hosing I will be able to water this magnificent garden of papayas, guavas, bananas, lemons and oranges exclusively with murky well water, and every molecule of filtered, potable drinking water in the solar pump/robinet system will be available for human consumption. And most importantly, my butt is going to look awesome.