Everyday life in Aceh: happiness is a full Bak Mandi

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Life_in_aceh_2When the first drops of rain began to fall, I felt a powerful surge of joy. Our house had not had water in two days, and we were running short. Our well was dry, and not a drop of city water came through the pipes. In vain, my housemates and I turned the pump on, hoping for something. But the taps remained dry and we were beginning to panic.

Water is a serious issue in Aceh, in spite of abundant water available in the province. A lot of the water comes from wells, including water in our office. I can't say I'm a fan of well water – it's usually greenish, and sometimes has a strong sulfur smell (at least I hope its sulfur) and high bacteria counts.

For that reason, my housemates are fans of collecting rainwater. We have large tubs which we place at strategic points around the house when it rains. Rain runs off the roof and we can collect a lot of it when we have a good tropical storm. Rainwater is crystal clear, and tests show that it's safe to drink. There is city water, some of the time. Our house is at the end of the street, so city water rarely makes it all the way to us. According to a friend working in the water sector, over 90 percent of water from the treatment plant disappears before the water reaches the city.

A lot of the loss is from leaks, but there is also a lot of illegal tapping. There's work on the water systems, but it will take a long time to fix.

Indonesian houses are perfectly adapted to the dodgy water situation. Bathrooms (mandi) have a tiled tub, built in the corner, which can be filled with water when water is available. This is called a bak mandi. There is always a large, plastic scoop which you use to bathe or flush the toilet. Many foreigners have an electric hot water tank connected to a shower, but in my house we use the bak mandi for our water needs.

But this week, our bak mandi was nearly empty, and we were getting desperate. And then it rained. We collected enough rainwater to fill our bak mandi, and also have plenty of water in our well. This was a great relief. Now our dishes are clean, we can flush with impunity, and bathe with as many scoops of water as we want.

After this close call, I think much more about water than I used to. I just love water now. I'm also amazed that it isn't more of an issue among foreigners here; I suppose that most of us make sure that water is not an issue for us personally. That makes sense, but it means we can easily forget that it is an issue for many Acehnese, some of whom have to wash their clothes and bathe in rivers or ditches.

So now I have a new source of happiness: a full bak mandi. Life is good.


David Lawrence

International Development Consultant

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