15 October 2010

Care for some cement water in your tea?

In Tonga, drinking water comes from the sky. The tropical thundering Pacific rains pound down on tin Tongan roofs, flow through PVC pipe channels in to huge round cement water tanks, called sima vai, literally translated, "cement water".
A sima vai- the pipe from the house is at the right in the picture

In a Tongan household, the smallest able-bodied kid is regularly sent to the sima vai armed with a large pitcher, or perhaps a bucket, to run out, turn on a brass-colored tap at the bottom of the huge cement catchment tank, and squat waiting as the container fills up. The water is made into juice for special occasions, tea for regular occasions, or used in soups and cooking. If the sima vai hasn't been cleaned in a while, and suspect particles float in the pitcher, it is promptly boiled in an electric water kettle and drunk as tea.

The particles are usually bits of mold or plant matter floating around in the catchment tank, and as gross as it can be some times, it's far from being the most dangerous thing in the water.

There is virtually no rubbish collection service in Tonga, with the small exception of the main island, Tongatapu, and even here, it is a rare week that we don't smell a rubbish fire near our house. The rubbish comes from a glut of imported, expired, often Chinese goods that have flooded into the Tongan market in the past few decades, which has no way to leave the tiny island kingdom once it is used, other than floating pollution in the ocean, mounded up in the bush in huge piles, or burned.

When plastic is burned, it releases dioxins into the air, tiny plastic particles known for causing birth defects and cancer. Like the mercury we ingest in the fish we eat every day, dioxins settle on rooftops or hang in the air, ready to be flushed into sima vais all around Tonga and drunk in our morning tea.

Maybe you're thinking, "Well, duh, why don't they just stop burning rubbish?" "Why don't people start consuming less rubbish-producing goods?" "Why isn't it exported?" These solutions aren't impossible, but have you ever tried to truly lead a rubbish-free life? Even bulk flour comes in a plastic sack. Toilet paper comes wrapped in plastic tissue. And where would the rubbish go, if not burned? If you walk far enough in Tonga, you reach the salty Pacific Ocean, if you dig deep enough in Tonga, you reach hard coral rock, or worse, the water table. If you ship the rubbish, who is going to pay for the massive fuel costs racked up in transporting it to the nearest recycling facility, 1000 kilometers away in New Zealand?

The solution is massive and structural, and several decades away if at all: manufacture profitable goods made with compostable materials, pass legislation that only allows those goods to enter Tonga, make it easy and cheap for each individual family to get rid of their rubbish, and make it stylish and upstanding to care about what happens to your rubbish.

Until then, we'll drink our tea with a dash of dioxins. Mmm, spicy.

I write this blog entry to participate in Blog Action day, October 15, 2010 (http://blogactionday.change.org) described in their words below: 
"... the purpose of Blog Action Day is to create a discussion. We ask bloggers to take a single day out of their schedule and focus it on an important issue. By doing so on the same day, the blogging community effectively changes the conversation on the web and focuses audiences around the globe on that issue. This year, with the theme of Water, we are eager to shed light on this often-overlooked topic."
This blog entry is also published on the SEEP network: http://seepcommunity.com 


  1. I have never heard of blog action day but think it is a creative and impactful idea. Too bad I haven't been blogging recently!

    As we in the US are one of the biggest producers of waste and toxins, I wonder if we would care more if it wasn't so easy for us to ship it off to become someone else's problem. If it was stuck in our community and in our drinking water to the same degree as in Tonga. However, having seen slum commmunities in various parts of the world that are cluttered with trash, I doubt that simply the proximity of waste is enough to motivate the average person to change. Your words about structural change are right on--now how do we summon the political, cultural, and communal will to make those changes happen?

    PS. In the rural areas of Thailand too they have big water containers to catch rainwater. We didn't drink it because we had a water filter and water bottles delivered to us, but we sure did use it for showering and flushing on the occasional days the town was working on pipes and our water got turned off!

  2. Thanks for the awesome comment Jenny! You always leave such insightful ones. You should blog... I love reading what you're doing.

    An interesting problem, eh. Another one of those big ones to chew on.



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