I returned this week from Peru, one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen and home to the much-touted Machu Picchu, an Inca holiday retreat of massive proportion. Wandering through the ruins, imagining the decadent excess that once filled the walls of each house, I couldn’t help but contrast the visions with those of modern-day Peru.
Most Peruvians are kind, friendly and generous. Their food is good and travelers receive many smiles. But the country is quite poor, and the conditions experienced by carefully protected foreigners are not always indicative of what living there is actually like. Healthcare can be a problem. Disease can be a problem. The Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) group is still known for its terrorist acts.
Tourists are warned to stick to the paths, always travel with someone who speaks the language, and avoid food or water that looks even slightly suspect.
“Local tap water in Peru is not considered potable,” informs the U.S. Department of State travel website. “Only bottled or treated (disinfected) water should be used for drinking.”
This is all well and good for me, with my dollars and my plan to stick to routes well-traveled. But for the average Peruvian, for whom a rural address and lack of funds may make buying bottled water or purification tablets difficult, this is more of a problem – especially in the jungle areas.
Indeed, often water that has been billed as safe can pose a hazard. “[Water] quality can deteriorate during collection, transport, and storage,” says a 2009 USAID report. Unfortunately, water’s necessity makes using suspect sources inevitable.
Walking through the towns, seeing women and children who hopefully had access to good drinking water and imagining those who didn’t, I felt guilty about the cool, clear liquid in the bottles I purchased every day. It was Andean glacial melt, some of the purest, most delicious in the world. I made an effort to finish every drop of every bottle, but it seemed like a shallow penance.
Upon returning home and doing some research, however, I felt better. Several initiatives to get water to rural places and ensure the safety of sources are underway, like the Healthy Communities and Municipalities Project, which according to the same USAID report, “aims to improve maternal, child, and perinatal health” and “employs [a] ‘Champion Community’ approach.” Under the auspices of such efforts, 64% of rural Peruvian households and 90% of urban households now have access to safe drinking water. I only hope the efforts will continue unabated, as these numbers, while hopeful, are still not enough.
To read more about these, check out USAID’s online report on Peruvian water quality improvement. And if you are inspired, please join me in donating to the cause here.