Melanie Crowder’s incredible novel PARCHED, which launches this week, is set in a world where water is so scarce that people will kill for access to it. For those of us who live in the USA or another highly developed country—where clean water flows out of taps in our homes whenever we need it—this story may read like highly imaginative fiction. But for people in other parts of the world, it’s already much closer to reality than we might realize. (In a situation that is eerily parallel to the one in PARCHED, this recent New York Times article reported that people are currently killing each other over water access in the drought-stricken country of Yemen.)
From 2009-2011, I was lucky enough to backpack around the world and visit many developing countries. Because of these experiences, Melanie asked me if I would help celebrate the launch of PARCHED by sharing some of what I learned about water around the world: how people use it, what it means to different cultures, and solutions that people have used for centuries to conserve it.
So without further ado, here are some interesting water facts and stories from my travels.
1) Tea ceremonies.
In several of the desert countries I visited, tea ceremonies were popular, but perhaps nowhere as much as in Mauritania, in the western Sahara desert. There, tea was served in tiny glasses after being poured back and forth until each glass had developed a head of foam worthy of a Guinness. Then the entire brewing and pouring ritual would be repeated three times over the course of an hour. I was impressed with how much the ritual accomplished: it brought people together socially, killed time under the hot desert sun, purified water for drinking through boiling, and quenched drinkers’ thirst using relatively little liquid.
Tiny cups of caffeinated liquid were also popular in Venezuela (tinto)…
…and India (masala chai).
2) Water-dependent architecture.
In Mali, another western African nation, many structures are built out of mud bricks—meaning that whether structures stand or fall is dependent on the availability of water. Making the bricks themselves is a weeks-long process that can only take place at certain times of year, when there is enough water to form the mixture but also enough sun to dry them.
Structures made out of mud brick—such as the world’s largest mud-brick mosque, in Djenné—are then eroded by the annual rains and need to be repaired when the dry season comes again.
3) Saved from slavery—by water.
Continuing through West Africa to Benin, 20,000 people live in stilted structures in the village of Ganvié, in the middle of Lake Nokoué. This village was established in the 17th century by the Tofinu people, who were trying to escape slavers from a different ethnic group called the Fon. The Fon’s religion forbade them from entering the water, so by building their homes on the lake, the Tofinu people were saved.
Today, their descendants trap fish using underwater nets and fences.
4) Bathrooms that conserve water.
Who says you need water to have a toilet? At the Green Turtle Eco-lodge in Ghana, indoor toilets are self-composting, using pits dug deep into the earth. You keep the lid down when the toilet’s not in use, and further control odor by dumping a scoop of ashes into the toilet after you use it.
In Indonesia, a traditional bathroom looks like this: a squat toilet and a mandi (or water basin). Whether you need to flush the toilet, wash your hands, or shower, you simply scoop the water you need out of the mandi and pour it where you need it. Since you can’t “leave the shower on” while lathering (and probably wouldn’t want to anyway—the water is cold!) much less water is wasted this way.
5) Capturing rainwater.
Sri Lanka has an amazing collection of man-made water “tanks,” or reservoirs, that were dug by hand between the 3rd century B.C. and the 12th century A.D., well before Europeans were using similar technology. These tanks were built to capture rainwater and irrigate dry areas, and continue to do so today. (Also, they are pretty to look at!)
6) Natural cisterns.
Madagascar is famous for its crazy-looking baobab trees. Their thick trunks hold hundreds of liters of water, which can be tapped by humans in dry periods.
Thanks to my travels, I’ll never again take clean water, running water, or hot water for granted—and I think that the readers of PARCHED will come away with a similar appreciation for the easy access we have to water in the developed world.
Have your own travels or life experiences exposed you to any surprising methods for using or conserving water? We’d love to hear about them in the comments. And remember that commenting gives you a chance to win a copy of PARCHED signed by Melanie Crowder!
Where to buy PARCHED:
Tara Dairman is a novelist, playwright, and recovering world traveler. All Four Stars, her debut middle-grade novel about an 11-year-old who secretly becomes a New York restaurant critic, will be published in 2014 by Putnam/Penguin.
Find her online at taradairman.com.