‘Water, water!’ is a cry that rings out each morning on the desert coastal plain of southern Lima: mothers frantically waving, trying to grab the attention of lorry drivers who cruise by, noisily breaking the calm of dawn, selling the most basic necessity of life writes Father Simon Cadwallader serving with the Liverpool Archdiocesan Missionary Project (LAMP) in Peru.
The water is poured out from the large containers into plastic barrels outside people´s front doors and then the busy day can begin: the cooking and washing and cleaning. As the Church celebrates Easter and the freedom gained by baptismal water, there are thousands of Peruvians who still await the joy of having piped domestic water. The problem is an urgent one. Almost 30% of households in Peru still do not have a working water system and nearly 50% are without access to sewerage. Promises to remedy the issue have been made by all recent presidents, all unfulfilled. Peruvians go to the polls again this month. Opinion polls suggest that access to water ranks fourth in public concerns, after jobs, crime and more paved roads. Voting is obligatory and the poorest will cast their vote in the hope of a president who is short on words and determined in action.
One could argue that part of the problem is that Peru's plentiful fresh water supply is simply in the wrong place. Only 100 miles or so inland from the Pacific, the Andean watershed diverts all rivers to the Amazon and the Atlantic. But with the vast migration from the Andean highlands over the last fifty years, 70% of Peru's 29 million people, and most of its industry, are all crammed into the narrow coastal desert to the west of the watershed.
Here, in Villa El Salvador, just outside the bustling capital city of Lima, it appears that there has been some progress. Trenches are being sunk and water towers are in place. However, it is all the work of private companies rather than a government initiative and the question remains: will all the poor be able to pay the monthly bills? Sadly, the whole issue has been drawn out at great social cost. Disputes over water stretch back to the first book of the bible and beyond, but here in the parish of Our Lady of Peace, the battles became fierce and physical, one man dying as a result of the injuries he sustained. The stand-off developed between neighbours in adjacent housing areas over the type of water system to which they felt entitled. The conventional system provides a service to each house; it is arguably more robust but comes at a higher price. Those in favour of it say they may be poor but they deserve the same water and sewerage system as the better-off suburbs of Lima. The other system links up each housing block and comes cheaper. The pipes are thinner and it appears more fragile but those in favour argue: let´s just take what we can get and move on. The fall-out has caused some people to move out of the area, fearing reprisals, and bonds of mutual trust are still in need of repair.
One community within the parish has had to up sticks and move on, simply because they were unfortunate to be living on a large sand hill. With the subsidence of the land, which stretches down to the Pan-American highway, there was no possibility of laying pipes in the area, so they bowed to mother nature and have been relocated in an area a few miles away, which affords them the promise of a better quality of life.
The invitation in the Easter Vigil readings for those without money to come and satisfy their thirst (Isaiah 55) is taken up by human rights campaigners in Peru who argue that water is not a commodity but a God-given gift. That protest has fallen on deaf ears and met with a sarcastic retort from some private companies: ‘it´s a pity God forgot to lay the pipes!’
So, as Peru goes to the polls, there is a lot to pray for. What to do about Lima's water will certainly be a decision for the next government. In the meantime, people pray to the Lord who concerned Himself with our spiritual and material needs: ‘To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost’. (Revelation 21:6).