July 16, 2013
I started thinking about this back when I was in Toguz Bulak, and the thoughts have continued on into Bar Bulak. The round table discussion that we had the other day brought up this topic, and as such, I’ve been thinking about it even more. Both Toguz Bulak (“Nine Springs”) and Bar Bulak (“There are springs”) have no real shortage of water in a literal sense. It kind of pops up out of the ground all over the place. However, despite the fact that there is water about, both places definitely have a water supply problem, and running water exists in neither village.
I’m not too clear on the timeline, but according to the folks in Bar Bulak, roughly 10-15 years ago or so, the UN started a program to provide clean drinking water to the rural areas of the Issyk Kul region (in which both Toguz Bulak and Bar Bulak are located). The project started… and then something happened to the funds. Whether the money was simply mismanaged or blatantly stolen, no one seems to know for sure (although most folks assume the latter). The UN money ran out before the wells were completed, and the UN cancelled the program. Aris, a Kyrgyzstan-based NGO that focuses on development projects stepped up to finish the job. Sort of. They finished installing wells in many villages (including Toguz Bulak), but never made it to many other villages (including Bar Bulak).
scattered throughout rural Kyrgyzstan.
Let’s examine the results of the UN/Aris project in Toguz Bulak first. Toguz Bulak is hardly a huge village by anyone’s measurement, although it’s several times larger than Bar Bulak population-wise. It’s laid out along a grid, with the houses fairly close together. The UN/Aris program installed one well per block, which in my estimation comes to roughly 24 wells. Fast-forward to the present day. I’d say maybe four of those wells still work as intended. Maybe. Probably about ten work, but poorly. The one on “my” block could only be turned on/off with a wrench. Several other wells throughout the village also had similar methods of being turned on/off. In contrast, several other wells ran constantly, having no shut-off function whatsoever. The rest of the wells in the village simply didn’t work at all.
The wells were designed to operate without electricity. This is great, since regular, reliable electricity has only recently come to Toguz Bulak. Instead of using an electric pump to bring the water to the surface, the pumps operate on water-pressure. You turn on the spigot, and the pressure forces the water up and out of the well. Great, huh? Well, unfortunately, the underground water supply isn’t that great. Whether it comes from the same source as the nine springs from which Toguz Bulak gets its name, I don’t know. What I do know is that sometimes it runs dry. The fact that there are several wells which run non-stop surely is a contributing factor. Whatever the reason, sometimes the wells are turned on and either nothing – or a tiny little trickle – comes out.
We were lucky to have a working well on our block. Many families must cart their buckets several blocks to get water – and keep in mind that this water is used for everything: cooking, cleaning, clothes-washing, bathing, watering livestock, irrigation, etc. That’s a lot of water to haul for several blocks! My host family (and many others) also collected run-off from the gutters of their homes and out-buildings to use for irrigation and watering livestock. Several of the springs were located in a swampy area to the north-west of the village; most people herded their cows and sheep into this area during the day, so that they could graze on the freshly watered grass and drink from the water seeping out of the ground. People made do with the broken wells, although it certainly wasn’t easy.
So how did this happen? How did Toguz Bulak go from having one working well per block to the situation in which they find themselves today? Well, this is indeed one of those sustainable development issues. First you must consider that for decades under the Soviet Union all infrastructure changes (for good or ill) were made in either Frunze (now Bishkek) or in Moscow. Locals grew accustomed to making no decisions regarding their local infrastructure; someone from above would always come along and tell them how to do it. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union – after decades of being told how from above to manage their villages – rural villages have been rather slow at coming to the realization that they need to take care of things themselves.
A few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union – and while still laboring under the mindset that people from above would solve their infrastructure problems – the locals of Toguz Bulak were suddenly treated to the sort of thing they had come to expect: the UN/Aris well project. The UN and Aris came in from above and donated wells, meaning that the locals no longer had to get their water from the swampy “springs” and melting mountain snows. Unfortunately, all the UN/Aris project did was install the wells. None of the locals were trained in how to properly maintain or repair the wells. No money was provided to the village to cover the cost of maintenance or repairs, and Aris themselves did not provide any maintenance or repair services. Over the years the wells have simply begun to break – and it seems that the locals are still waiting for someone to come from above and solve their water woes.
Now let’s examine the water situation in Bar Bulak. In many ways it is similar to the situation in Toguz Bulak, although there are some key differences. Unlike in Toguz Bulak, the wells in Bar Bulak from the UN/Aris well project were only half installed. If you compare the photos of the wells in Toguz Bulak and their counterparts in Bar Bulak, you can see that they are identical, except for the fact that the ones in Bar Bulak were never fully assembled. Sadly, it seems that at one time, all of the pieces were available, they just needed to be connected; however, this never happened. The wells have never worked, and now most of the parts have either broken or disappeared.
While Toguz Bulak had its nine “springs” it lacked any central water source. Bar Bulak, in contrast, has a small river running through it, which is both spring-fed and fed from snow-melts. As in many villages (and even Bishkek) the water from this river is routed through the village by a network of ditches, creeks, pipes, and concrete troughs. These miniature waterways (called арык, or aryk) enable the river/spring water to reach every home in the village, where it can be used for any purpose. Yes, many people rely on aryk-water for cooking, in addition to cleaning, irrigation, watering livestock, etc.
One of the many spring-sources for the river
However, not everyone here in Bar Bulak relies on the river/aryk system to provide their water. My host family (as well as several other families in the village) had a hand-pump well installed on their property several years ago. They use the hand-pump well for all water-related purposes except irrigation (for which they use water from the aryk). The water from the hand pump is clean and tasty – they drink from it, so I do as well. (Although given the stomach troubles I’ve had while here, I do wonder about the cleanliness of the water coming from our well.) The nearby neighbors frequently come over to my host family’s property to fill their buckets from the hand-pump, and I would assume the same thing occurs at the other hand-pump-owning properties in the village. It’s quite far from a perfect solution, but it does seem to be rather a step in the right direction.
filling up buckets for her family from my host family's well.
The area where the yurt camp is located down by the lake shore also has several UN/Aris wells, although most do not work at all. Two have been rigged by the locals to produce a slow trickle of water. Locals also believe in the health benefits of drinking the water from the hot springs, so many collect water from the outdoor section of said springs.
Lake Issyk Kul has a high salt content, which makes it unpalatable and useless for irrigation.
The outdoor area of the hot springs, where many people collected water.
I should also mention that the London School’s Beach Camp “hotel” located next to the yurt camp (and where I will be staying next week) has running water, as they have paid to have an electric well installed, although the water pressure varies from excellent to near nonexistent. Such things are available, one just has to be willing to shell out the funds to cover the costs.
I’m not sure what the solution should be for the water woes of villages such as Toguz Bulak and Bar Bulak. Neither village has running water or a reliable supply of clean drinking water available to all residents. Simply donating wells certainly didn’t work. Only a few families in Bar Bulak can afford to have a hand-pump well installed, and the technology for such a thing is inaccessible in Toguz Bulak. In communities where money is scarce, people simply can’t afford to buy well-drilling equipment or pay for its use. The donation of such items/services doesn’t lead to a sustainable solution. So what is the solution? I have no idea, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past two months. What are your thoughts?
(Also, special thanks to my students Ryskul and Alia who helped me locate and photograph the various water sources around Bar Bulak, as well as to Aliman and Murat who showed me the springs of Toguz Bulak.)