Saturday, September 11, 2010

Futilities, Part 1

Yesterday, I wrote about how happy I was watching the cows in the road, but I have to admit, my true happiest moment so far on Tortola was the day that HB brought the internet home. The happiness of having the internet would soon be dashed by the instability and unreliability of the internet, but by then, I knew that was just par for the utilities course in the British Virgin Islands.

I learned very quickly how frustrating the utilities could be. On my first night at home, after a long, hot day transporting myself, my luggage, and two dogs in crates by taxi and ferry from St. Thomas to Tortola, the only thing in the world I wanted was a shower. Thankfully, the water was working that night, and in that sense, I was luckier than HB who had gone two days without running water when he'd arrived in Tortola the week before.

Still, the water pressure definitely left something to be desired, as it emerged from the showerhead in the kind of slow trickle that you or I might normally call "a leak". I walked around with helmet head for several days before I finally figured out how to deal with the low water pressure -- how much shampoo to use(lots); what time of day to shower for optimal pressure(about 3am); how long to stand under the dribbling water rinsing my hair (indefinitely).

The water, just like all the rest of the utilities, as you will see, comes and goes. This is the result of a two-tiered water system, intended to ensure that all residents have water all the time, but that has several defects that, in fact, ensure the opposite.

Tier 1 of the water system is the government water. Government water is similar to just about any municipal water system. A government agency pumps a supply of clean, fresh water through pipes underground to anyone who is willing to pay for it. All you have to do is hook up to the system, and send your check in monthly.

In the British Virgin Islands, though, there are no aquifers, rivers, lakes, or any other source of naturally-occurring fresh water. As a result, the government water is provided through desalination of ocean water. The desalination plant was built by a private company under government contract, and is controlled by the private company.

To the best of my understanding, in recent weeks, there has been discussion of creating a second desalination plant, which would be contracted to a DIFFERENT private company. Upset by this discussion, the company controlling the only existing desalination plant on Tortola has opted to stop desalinating water, effectively cutting off Tier 1 of the water system, government water.

Tier 2 of the water system are the cisterns required to be installed on any dwelling house built in the British Virgin Islands. Cisterns are similar to wells, in that they provide a private source of water, dependent only on that source not running out. A network of guttering attached to the residence collects the rainwater, and funnels it to the cistern to be stored, until it is needed by the residents. Cisterns are intended to be used only as a back-up water source when government water fails -- for example, when there's a burst pipe.

Unfortunately, since the government water has worked only two days out of the twenty-four I have been here, we have been entirely reliant on cistern water for most of that time. The only noticeable effect of using cistern water vs. government water is the afore-mentioned water pressure problem. While government water provides water pressure not unlike a fire hose, cistern water results in the dribbling shower of my first night.

Except, of course, when it doesn't rain for several days at a time. Then, there is a more detrimental effect of relying on cistern water: the cistern runs dry. Last week, we experienced an unusual period of three days straight with no rain. At the end of those three days, we were left without running water for over 24 hours, until the skies broke, briefly, and we were granted the use of our indoor plumbing again.

In upcoming weeks, I will describe the capriciousness of our other utilities, including the electricity, internet, cable, and mobile phone. On the positive side, we have one utility that has never failed us yet (touch wood), not even during Hurricane Earl, and I am very thankful for our propane gas.

1 comment:

Search This Blog