‘Water’ and the Women of Ture-ture

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A Ture-ture woman gathers water for domestic use from the river

We either grew up with clean water or just got so used to having it regularly flowing right into our bathrooms and kitchen sinks such that our subconscious minds assume that this is a convenience that everyone else in the world is enjoying.  And oh we get so stressed out when water temporarily stops flowing from our tap for a second that we quickly make angry calls to the concerned offices or vent our madness to the innocent guy who delivers the water bill. And yes, we and our children have come to believe that water is an infinite resource that we can guiltlessly allow to overflow from our buckets or indefinitely flood our gardens and lawns.  Ah, we live in an illusion.  In this day and age when water as a basic need is supposed to be a given for every human being and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals are supposed to have ensured that;  the fact that this is not true in many places could come like a slap of painful reality on our well-washed faces.

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The brownish color of the water and the muddy embankments of the river suggest a significant amount of dirt and microorganisms flowing with the water.

Take the case of Ture-ture, a village in Kiwai township in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea.  The village is inhabited by Kiwai people.  Because Kiwais are seafarers, Ture-ture is right on the beach facing the Gulf of Papua. But while the seawater is abundantly close and is faithfully providing for their daily food; the water that they need to drink and for household use comes from far away, a river that flows fresh when the sea tide is low but turns brackish when the tide is up.

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The footbridge that used to cross this portion of the bushy trail to the river collapsed some time ago.

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And so women and their children trying to get to the big river had to cross this one-log bridge.

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Tired from the long walk and hot weather, these women decided to wallow in the river and drink river water as they fill their containers

There is little choice for the main users of fresh water, the women of Ture-ture.  Washing kettles and dishes with seawater may always work, bathing and washing laundry may also be okay for some time, but drinking and cooking with it is impossible.  On rainy months the situation is relatively fine because most houses are fitted with rain collectors and they can stock fresh water that can last for days.  But, on long dry seasons, the crisis happens and, for these women, almost any form of water will do if only to survive for a day.

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A Ture-ture woman cleans her kettles in a salt-water pond at the beach.

During the dry months, the only fresh water source for the village is a river about a kilometer away from the sea.  To get there, the women will need to walk across dense bushes under coconut groves, follow the dangerous banks of a small creek, cross a slim single-log bridge, carefully make their way down to the riverbank, fill their containers, haul them up the bank, then start the long and treacherous path towards home with the heavy 20 liter containers hanging on their back through a strap slung on their heads — an exercise that could surpass a military obstacle course in difficulty and test of endurance.

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The women flock to the riverbank to collect water while the tide is low and the river is not yet contaminated by salty water

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The elderly gather water in batches of small pails

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The stronger women can carry 20-liter containers filled with water

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And then this woman is ready to go with a bucketful on her head and one-gallon containers in a basket slung on her back

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The trip towards home needs to cross this single-log footbridge which is difficult enough to cross without any baggage.

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And then the trail navigates along the sides of a creek

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A muddy surface and protruding roots of trees make the trip for the loaded woman and kids more difficult and doubly dangerous

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And then the path moves under a bushy coconut grove – an equally dangerous place for women and girls made helpless by a heavy load

And the water these women labor so much to bring home are not even fit for human consumption by ‘our’ standards.   No one knows what sorts of water-borne elements and organisms the river water was carrying. For the initiated, in extreme cases such as this when there is no other choice, the river water has to be allowed to settle overnight in a clean container, with the process repeated in at least two more containers. Applying chlorine is an option that is not available to these women but filtering and boiling the water is something that they can do.  Unfortunately, they have obviously not been trained in such water purification processes.   I saw women go into the river then drink straight from it as they were filling their containers.  I even saw some of them collect water that was left by a high tide in drainage canals near their houses.   I was shocked and I seriously wondered how they ever survived all these years.  And I can only surmise that death and disease has been high among the Kiwais in Ture-ture.   And those ones I was observing were just the survivors.

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It is said that not a few women from other villages who married a man from Ture-ture cried in depression when they saw where and how they needed to fetch water for their home. Some simply left their husbands, went back to their village and never came back.

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But those who stayed have cheerfully embraced the arduous trip to the river as a vital part of their daily journey in life

And now, as I turn on the water tap, I can see images of these strong, admirable women smiling although obviously pained and burdened as they carry heavy loads of water from the distant river to their waiting husbands and kids.

Author’s Note: A community-driven development (CDD) project named Rural Service Delivery and Local Governance Project (RSDLGP), which is being implemented by the PNG government with support from the World Bank, is currently working with the Ture-ture community to fix the bridge that connects the village to the main river and improve the women’s access to the riverbank.  The Local Level Government of Kiwai hopes to find more sustainable water sources for Ture-ture.   I can connect interested donors with the community group that has been trained and organized by RSDLGP to address community problems such as potable water.