Study finds link between water distribution systems and distress

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Thirsty? Imagine the fear, anxiety and desperation of not knowing when or from where you will get your next sip of water. Consider the shame of begging for or borrowing enough water to meet the basic needs of you and your family.

This may seem like a nightmare, but it is a sad reality for many impoverished people around the world. And with ground water levels dropping and potable water supplies becoming scarcer, the scope of this suffering will undoubtedly spread.

Amber Wutich, a cultural anthropologist in Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, is taking an in-depth look at the pressing issue of water insecurity and how it affects people on an emotional level. Along with Kathleen Ragsdale, assistant professor of anthropology at Mississippi State University, Wutich has produced the first systematic study of intra-community patterns of water insecurity in an urban setting. Their findings will appear in an upcoming edition of Social Science & Medicine.

For the scene of the study, Wutich and Ragsdale chose what just may be the ideal place for researching water issues: Cochabamba, Bolivia, site of the famed “Water War” of 2000. Specifically, they worked in Villa Israel, a squatter settlement on the fringes of the South American metropolis. What they found during the course of their work in the region carries global resonance, and is particularly pertinent to areas of persistent drought.

“The study revolved around three aspects of water insecurity: insufficient access to water distribution systems; inadequate water supply; and dependence on seasonal water sources,” explains Wutich.

The results point to a significant link between emotional distress and access to water distribution systems but virtually no relationship to water supply or dependence on seasonal water sources. In addition, the women in the study reported feeling more emotional distress than the men. But the crux of the findings is that social inequities and the perception of unfairness and instability of the water distribution system are the major players in creating emotional distress, not the lack of water itself.

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“I think that’s understandable,” states Wutich, relating the results to one of our nation’s recent crises—Hurricane Katrina. “What was it that caused the most emotional distress, the hurricane itself or the fact that some people felt that government resources were not distributed across communities in a fair way?”

Wutich, who is a core faculty member in ASU’s Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, began the ethnographic field study of Villa Israel in 2004 and concluded it with another visit last summer. The study was based on interviews with the heads of 72 households. The interviews were held four times a year to cover all seasons, from the rainiest to the driest; lasted an average of 65 minutes each; and were conducted in Quechua, Aymara and Spanish, the main languages of the ethnically diverse community.

Cochabamba is buzzing with development and commerce and draws people from all over with the promise of employment. Most come to work in the open-air market, said to be the largest in South America. And many of those who wind up in far-flung settlements like Villa Israel face one-way work commutes of 45 minutes, followed by workdays up to 16 hours.

That leaves little time or personal energy for obtaining water from vendors, natural sources or elsewhere. Four or five water trucks circulate daily with 10,000-liter loads, transferring their cargo to those who can afford it. Wealthier clients often buy entire loads, depriving poorer customers of water for days at a time unless they have access to other sources, which is often not the case.

Yet, Wutich says the spirit in the young community is strong and improvements are occurring, thanks to the hard work, sacrifice and drive of locals who are motivated to improve residents’ quality of life. As a result of their efforts, there are now two schools, a clinic, 14 churches and numerous bridges and canals in the area. But, water insecurity remains, as do the emotional repercussions evidenced by Wutich’s and Ragsdale’s study.

Wutich is expanding her research on water insecurity by planning for a study of 40 squatter settlements and coordinating with CEDIB (Centro de Documentación e Información Bolivia), a community organization in Bolivia, to create a research base that will expedite the processing of field data. In the meantime, Wutich’s and Ragsdale’s findings have been made available to organizations in Cochabamba with the hope they will help the people and local government better understand and deal with the issue.

Rebecca Howe, [email protected]
(480) 727-6577
School of Human Evolution and Social Change

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