Democracy in a time of water shortage

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Is democracy ready to handle water shortages?

by Eric Jackson

Hardcore, totally offensive to this resident’s and reporter’s eyes. A cryptic handwritten notice on the wall at the corregiduria about an Easter Sunday meeting, with a fine for those who don’t attend? In a village with Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t believe in any government other than what they see as God’s? In a community of fewer than 1,000 households, some headed by members of the militant SUNTRACS construction workers’ union who are agnostic about God but true believers in the broad masses of workers (even if skeptical about the peasants and revolutionary intellectuals)? In a place where most people at least nominally profess Christianity, most of these Catholic? Really, a compulsory local government meeting on Easter Sunday?

Here in El Bajito, people of all faiths and no faith are well nigh unanimous in not believing in the local authorities. We’re the side of town that went eight months without water – and without our PRD representante showing his face – a couple of years ago. One neighbor asked me to report what happened at the meeting.

More than 100 people did show up. Figure that Holy Week without water, as El Bajito had just experienced, would boost interest more than any threatened fine and infinitely more than the opportunity to hobnob with someone who believes that she or he has power and/or prestige.

Did they ultimately record a vote about the fines? There was no coherent proposal, no orderly debate, no proper vote count. Anyone who gets fined and challenges it probably will not get to that point, as a public meeting with a fine for non-attendance and the temerity to call such a thing for Easter Sunday would surely merit summary dismissal as to any result. Forced association and required labor on the holiest of Christian sabbaths don’t pass constitutional muster here or in many other parts of the Western world.

But who attended despite these obvious shortcomings? It turns out the El Bajito is not the worst off, that there had been people uphill who hadn’t been getting much water for many more weeks. We were told that the water supply was sufficient but the water pressure is not and to fix that there would need to be more pumps installed.

We have this jury-rigged rural aqueduct, apart from the national IDAAN water and sewer utility. It’s cheap, unreliable and sometimes better run than other times, depending on who is on the water board at a particular time. Also, depending on which people are allowed to do which self-help modifications to the water lines. Also, depending on which weenie is dead set on impressing someone with his (not his or her, invariably his) wheels, exposed PVC pipes getting crushed be damned.

The generally reliable Señora Alicia, money collector, complaint listener, inspector and stabilizing force – secretaria” – of the water committee privately assured me that water would come the next day. At the appointed hour it didn’t but she was there inspecting and the following morning it did. Only half a tank, but it’s that time of year.

The meeting itself was fun to watch. Political skills at the table in front? Precious few. Individuals who like to hear themselves talk but have little to say? A couple of those. People with good points but limited ability to express them? One or two of those. A generation of people who went to school under the dictatorship, or after the dictatorship when discussion of what went before was banished from the schools, had few among them with any formal education in civics of which to speak. So no points of order, although such would have been well taken. The coherent voices of reason making good points? Those belonged to most of the minority of folks at the meeting who actually spoke. They were mostly schoolteachers or people who had learned their political skills in the labor movement. (Some of the teachers were both, that is, folks who learned politics through their unions.)

There are nebulous plans for some sort of a benefit in May to raise money for more pumps. Figure that by then or soon after water shortages will go to the back of most people’s minds until next year.

This reporter would like to see a water table map, with overlays of topographical maps and an aqueduct map. But were that knowledge collected, it could come with a request to serve on the water committee. But maybe that could be fended off by putting on the wild eyes and getting into apocalyptic talk about climate change.

The indoor plumbing with running water for all is one of President Varela’s promises that looks likely to go largely unkept. A proper solution in the face of climate change would likely involve unification of local rural systems with IDAAN, and money arguments to go with that. In any comprehensive and sustainable version it would surely involve desalination, to put sea water without the salt into the national water supply. It would involve cancellation of some private dibs on rivers and streams. It’s not going to happen in the next year and a half. A mandatory Easter meeting might be one thing, but God forbid forthright, intelligent and discomforting discussions in an election year.

 

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