Water Collection Ain’t Fun

by | Nov 20, 2023 | Cambodia, Clean Water and Energy

Every summer for 18 years, I drank water hand drawn from a nearby well. Several times a week, at the behest of the job chart tacked to the wall of our rustic cottage, I grabbed the faded green bucket from the counter and skipped along the flagstones to our well, topped by a heavily rusted iron lid. Mustering all the strength in my sapling-sized arms, I heaved back the groaning lid and peered into the pellucid pool, hemmed in by concrete walls and a gravelly bottom.
Several surprised frogs ferociously kicked to the bottom while the head of a yellow-spotted salamander, whom I’d grown familiar with over the years, reversed into his austere redoubt, a half-inch crack just above the waterline on the well’s opposite side. Following my dad’s drilled-in instructions, I skimmed the surface and dumped it in the surrounding periwinkle. Then, with my left arm starting to shake and the lid threatening to bop me, I scooped out a bucketful. Satisfied with my mostly debris-free load, I released the lid from its highest point, all for the satisfaction of hearing it slam down and echo off the surrounding hills. If our neighbors weren’t already awake, they certainly were now. Bucket in hand, I waddled home, water sloshing my socks with every step.

I didn’t grow up in poverty. Weekly water fetching was just part of our family’s normal summer experience growing up on a small rural lake in eastern Pennsylvania. For three months each year, we drank and cooked with this water, miraculously managing to avoid giardia. We tolerated our “primitive” lifestyle partly because it was temporary. Come September, we’d load up the Buick station wagon and head back to nine months of pure running tap water and all the accompanying modern conveniences: washing machines, dishwashers, showers and four different sinks, all of which filtered out frogs and salamanders. For my family, drinking hand-drawn water from a well, and the effort involved, was little more than a minor inconvenience. Even so, I made sure to complain with every bucketful.

The Bunong never complains. And for them, living in the hill country in Mondulkiri, Cambodia, water collection is a major inconvenience, and risky, too. Last year, as a visiting professor from Houghton University studying human ecology, I sat in the stilted, clapboard houses of a handful of gracious — and impoverished — Bunong, as they told me about their lives and routine hardships.

Water, unsurprisingly, neared the top of the list. Unlike my family with our nearby well, the Bunong had to have water trucked into their homes, an expense many households could ill-afford. In some cases, the untested water they drank harbored debilitating pathogens far worse than any threats we might have faced in Pennsylvania. For the Bunong, the result of this system was an ever-deepening poverty trap: regular bouts of sickness that inhibited time spent in other gainful activities — activities needed to advance the household out of its poverty. One root of this problem: Unclean water came at a cost.

World Hope International recognizes this problem. One of its ventures, TapEffect, is remarkable in its efficacious simplicity: the installation of clean water piped directly into homes. Benefits are threefold: safeguarding a household’s health, expense and time. With pipes in place, gainful activities can fill the hours previously exhausted on dubious water collection.

Turning a tap is something most of us take for granted. I sure do. It’s partly why I’m thankful for those idyllic childhood summers that involved weekly trips to our antiquated well. When I close my eyes, I can relive the memories: the groaning lid, terrified frogs and my socks, always baptized by the time I was home. In the carefree context I grew up, water collection was quaint. For the Bunong, trapped in poverty and cyclic issues of waterborne illness, it ain’t. 

Eli J. Knapp

Eli J. Knapp

Special Content Contributor

Professor Eli Knapp ’00 teaches courses in ecology, biology, ornithography and conservation at Houghton University. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Delightful Horror of Family Birding: Sharing Nature with the Next Generation and Dead Serious: Wild Hope Amid the Sixth Extinction.