A few days before Lucey was to leave for the Peace Corps, we did what best friends do: we got drunk, slept snuggled side-by-side, and went shopping the next day. Hungover and feeling rather delicate, we hit up the hot spots, starting at Starbucks, then to EMS, and finishing it off at Walmart. Starbucks for obvious reasons—although, being the self-proclaimed coffee snobs that we are, it was a last resort. As for Walmart and EMS, we weren't doing your usual Sunday morning post-brunch boutique browsing; we were stocking up on last-minute life-saving items that we were certain would come in handy when she touched down in Senegal. EMS for the elements, Walmart for comfort. I felt a sense of duty as the best friend: like a hound, I'd sniff out the things she'd overlooked in her haze of anxiety, and find exactly what I knew would bring a smile to her face whenever she would sit, I imagined, beneath a mosquito net crying by candlelight because of how much she would miss me. And everyone else, of course.
It's been a year and a half since I helped stuff her bags with an arsenal of hair ties, Hello Kitty Band-Aids, protein bars, and hand sanitizer. I don't know if any of this has come in handy, but if nothing else, I felt better knowing she had all her bases covered. What's worse than hair hanging in your eyes as you lather your hands in antibacterial sanitizer to try to save your leg with Band-Aids from a gash you got when you collapsed because you're so incredibly protein-deficient?
Damn, I'm a good friend.
There have been a number of pleasant surprises over the months, the biggest being how connected she's managed to stay. We've Skyped a handful of times from her volunteer base; I've heard monkeys shouting at each other, waved to her fellow volunteers, and envied her pixelated tan. Her stories are outrageous, as to be expected—Lucey on a normal day is a treasure trove of hilarity, so put her in Africa with a lot of free time and a cast of oddball characters, and what results is nothing short of a bestselling novel.
You'd be naïve to think, as I did, that two years in the Peace Corps would yield only research and a gut full of parasites. My opinions are based solely on what Lucey's told me—and not told me. You don't always need to verbalize things when your every cell is tethered to one another's. I've gathered that the volunteer life is intoxicating in the best and worst ways, illuminating the rawest aspects of life—death, heartache, trust, and lust. It's learning to communicate your most basic needs with a clumsy tongue, finding your place in your adoptive family that has more jealous wives and sisters than you can handle, and coaxing a vegetable garden to life in a region that doesn't feel the touch of rain for months at a time.
I feared for Lucey during her first dry season, really and truly feared for her. How can it not rain for six months?? I'd only recently finished up an internship with an organization that works to combat this very issue, water scarcity in developing nations, and although I'd recite staggering statistics to anyone who would listen, there was still that disconnect, that veil between myself and the reality of life in some of the world's driest landscapes. The numbers I'd regurgitate were still just numbers, symbols arranged on a screen or paper or painted on the walls of the office; the videos I'd watch of thirst-quenched livestock and sickly children disappeared as soon as I'd shut my computer; and the presentations I'd make to convey the urgency of the world's water crisis were meaningless without the right font and buzzwords. It was still just someone else's crisis.
I knew of course that Lucey would be alright; she'd cope the same way her community's been coping since man first stood tall. But I guess what made my skin crawl with panic is that this isn't the world of our ancestors: we've beaten the crap out of our planet, pulverized it beyond repair and left it twitching in the dust. The systems that once kept beautiful, pristine waters pumping through its veins are FREAKING OUT. They aren't going backwards, they aren't coming early or late, too much too heavy too little too weak.
They've gone haywire.
We can rightside up the upside down. We can spin clockwise to counterclockwise and back. We can even push time around like a bully, forwards and backwards twice a year to suit our modern needs. But the systems that govern our very way of life, down to the water that swims in our cells, have stood up, cleared their throats, and proceeded to have a complete and utter Break. Down.
So here we are, learning to cope with unpredictability. And here I am, listening to Lucey tell me how far she's walked that day to collect water—just up over the hill, not that far compared to some of the other villages, she tells me—and how she'll be rationing that water between drinking, bathing, cleaning, cooking, watering the animals and watering the community garden that's she's bubbled and troubled over for months now. As if just breaking the surface of the parched earth and planting the garden wasn't hard enough, getting her community to recognize the importance of conserving their valuable water supply to keep the plants going has been an unforeseen—an unpredicted—challenge. While much of her community's diet still contains many native fruits and vegetables, there has been an alarming invasion of cheap and unhealthy processed foods, and tumbleweeds of trash blow through her village. With a decreasing reliance on fresh food from the earth, people have, understandably, shifted their focus of conserving water for growing produce to using it more liberally in other ways.
It's critical that we shift the focus back to water conservation, however, and there's a global effort to do so. World Water Day is March 22nd this year, a day dedicated to drawing worldwide attention to a crisis that has far reaching effects for all of us. This year's theme—water and jobs—is aimed at highlighting the connection between water scarcity and the workforce. According to UN-Water:
“Today, almost half of the world's workers—1.5 billion people—work in water-related sectors and nearly all jobs depend on water and those that ensure its safe delivery. Yet the millions of people who work in water are often not recognized or protected by basic labour rights. The theme in 2016... show[s] how enough quantity and quality of water can change workers' lives and livelihoods—and even transform societies and economies.”
Heading over to UN-Water's YouTube page, a collection of short animated videos illustrate just some of the ways in which water and the world's workforce are intrinsically linked: a fisherman hopes to fill his empty net; factory workers toil away without access to proper sanitation; a young girl spends her days walking to collect water when she could be getting an education and a job.
Global water shortage is not a hopeless situation. Yes, water scarcity is a problem—if we address it in conventional ways. But when faced with a crisis, as history shows, humans have an amazing way to overcome it; we've got big brains, skilled in the art of problem solving, and they're thirsty. We've got to match our challenger. We've got to go crazy right back at it. We need to invent some weird things; we've gotta put two and two together and make a drop of water. And the good news is, this is already happening! In keeping with the theme of water and jobs, it's crucial that we highlight and support those who are working to help workers, those whose labor is improving workplace conditions, streamlining water collection, and eradicating pollutants and toxins in drinking water.
Every day, talented and dedicated people around the world are working to develop new technology to combat the water shortage crisis, attacking it from all angles: desalinization of salt water, purification methods, reducing wasted water, improving irrigation methods, and so much more. Some of the concepts are as small as a straw, while others are large, hulking power plants. Weighing in at just 2 ounces, the LifeStraw is an affordable microfiltration device capable of filtering 99.9% of waterborne bacteria from over 260 gallons of water. The company also follows the popular one-for-one model, where, for every LifeStraw sold, the company provides safe, clean drinking water to one student for one school year. Another effective and accessible product is the portable Desolenator, a solar-powered desalination tool that generates freshwater from seawater and, like the LifeStraw, removes 99.9% of contaminants from water, producing up to 15 liters of safe freshwater per day. Coming in at $774 with a 20-year life span, this powerful tool is also very affordable, costing less than $40 a year. And recently, an invention gained a lot of attention when Bill Gates publicly drank water that had been produced and converted from human waste: the Omni Processor S200, a large heat and power plant, produces energy and over 22,500 gallons of drinking water from processing and converting human sewage. Its goals are big, but should it live up to them and serve its communities well, it could prove to be a very promising tool in helping to combat a number of issues.
The only Omni Processor plant to date is in Dakar, Senegal, and I'm excited to talk to Lucey about it—has she seen it? Does it actually work? And (perhaps my most burning question), can she go on a tour, and is there a bathroom she can use to watch it all in action?
As I wait for Lucey to sign online, like every time we virtually connect, I'm amazed by how much technology has altered our lives. This is not the world of our ancestors: I can see the freckles of my best friend's face as she carries on about her life that's so far away from me; the same solar technology that she uses to charge her phone can remove almost all of the harmful bacteria from water, saving countless lives; and the next time she leaves her village for a trip to the city, she may see, first hand, one hell of a crazy invention, an unexpected—an unpredicted—invention that just may quench our planet's thirst.