Monday, June 27, 2016

Antigua, Guatemala: Drinking Water

Clay water filter, Antigua, Guatemala. April 2016.

This is both an educational post and a comedic post, the latter offering a wonderful opportunity to laugh hard at this reporter's obliviousness.

I'll start with my cluelessness.

I am oblivious

These photos are of the clay water urns at the house of my airbnb hostess.

The urn is graceful and pretty in its simple lines, color, and material. It sits out on the covered veranda of my hostess' house, which overlooks the pretty garden.

My hostess explained that this is where I should get my drinking water.

At the time, I thought, what an elegant way to proffer filtered water! So much sweeter than those glug-gluggy, bulky blue water jug operations.

For several days, I'd draw my water for my coffee or my water bottle, and at times, I'd observe that the water seemed to be very low, only to discover less than an hour later, that the urn was again full. Gee, I wondered, where are the blue jugs stashed, and who is lifting those heavy suckers and pouring them into this urn? A maid comes once a week, so someone else must be replenishing the urns. Wouldn't I hear the doorbell if a water supplier came with new water supplies?  

I knew my thinking was somehow awry, but I didn't stop to examine it.  

One day, when the water was out (and my hostess was away), I asked another guest, a woman who'd been there for several months, if she could explain the system to me so I could do my part, if any, to keep the urn filled.

So here's the funny part. She explained that you get a pot of water from the kitchen sink and pour it into the urn. The urn is the filtration device.

Well, fuckity-fuck.

The magical replenishment explained, the universe back in order.

From then on, I added water to the urn every day as a contributing member of the house society.

It amazes me how easily our mental models can obscure facts in front of our faces. All of my previous experiences with countries with dubious water supplies had included bottled water, large or small. I had no knowledge about clay or ceramic filter jugs like this one. I didn't stop once to examine how the reality in front of me might differ from my "wallpaper" assumption.

I am still laughing at myself. But I'm also appreciating this important reminder about how assumptions color our judgements so insidiously.

Clay water filter, Antigua, Guatemala. April 2016.


My hostess' daughter, when I shared with her my new understanding, said "Oh yeah, so much money is saved by using these clay filters! They're really popular now. They're great!"

It was a Guatemalan who invented the modern ceramic water filters. An excerpt from a 2013 article in the New Internationalist:

In 1981, Fernando Mazariegos developed a technology called ceramic pot filtration. The following year, the design was awarded the top prize by the Latin American Institute of Water Engineers for its effectiveness in treating contaminated water. It has since gone on to receive awards from the World Bank.

There are different designs and materials for the filtering urns. Some use replaceable carbon filters; some incorporate copper or silver into the clay or ceramic material; some have a plastic liner.

None of these systems are perfect, but assuming they are in good condition, cleaned regularly, and used properly, they do a bang-up job of filtering out contaminants, including bacteria.

More information here:

You can take a look at different types of water filters - ceramic, clay (like the one at my hostess' house), plastic, and enamelware - at the Guatemalan Ecofiltro here.

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