Clean Water Was My Privilege by Kelli King

Kelli King in the Philippines
Kelli King in the Philippines

Clean Water Was My Privilege

For a year and a half in 2012-2013, I lived in the Philippines as an LDS missionary.  I was 22-23 years old. When I got the letter informing me that I would be going to the Philippines, I was so excited. I wanted nothing more than to help bring the people of the world closer to God. With that excitement however, also came a little bit of worry as to health risks that come from living in a third world country.

In my letter I was told that certain feminine hygiene items might not be available in the Philippines, so I’d have to pack eighteen months’ worth in my luggage. I was told to bring copious amounts of insect repellant and sunblock.  In addition I was given a large list of vaccinations that I had to get inoculated with before going overseas. This foresight proved very useful.

Upon arriving in Bacolod, in Negros Occidental, the province where I would be serving my mission, I was warned immediately by my missionary leaders about the dangers of water. Having thus far always lived in well-developed places in America, I never really thought much about the cleanliness of my water. Now all of a sudden, there were rules.

Don’t drink the water they said. Don’t drink the water unless it’s bottled or filtered. If someone offers you water from their sink, say no thank you. If they give you water and you don’t know where it’s from, don’t take it. Don’t drink the water. They said that if I were to drink the water I’ll get parasites.

I was informed that at the end of my mission, regardless of whether or not I thought I had parasites or not, I would be given an anti-worm pill that would kill all the parasites that I most likely would have, even if I did my best to avoid drinking unfiltered water. And so my life as an American in the Philippines began.

The mission provided me with a water bottle with a built-in filter that I carried around faithfully. I was also provided with a 3-part filtration system on the kitchen sinks of every apartment I lived in throughout the island.

Conditions weren’t all that I was used to though. The first time I washed my hands in one apartment where I lived, I thought I had a paper cut, because of the rusty smell, that I soon realized was coming from the faucet. Not only did the water smell rusty, but it had a distinctive yellow hue.

Although water filtration/delivery companies existed in the places I lived, many of the people were unable to afford such a luxury. Many homes had no running water at all. If they did, the water wasn’t clean. Often times the most convenient and available source of water for the common man was well water that was obtained with a hand pump. This water was often visually discolored and had a smell.

I tried very carefully to avoid drinking unfiltered water. But even so, the water was nearly impossible to avoid. As a missionary I was often guest to people who would happily share a meal with me and my companions. Did I ask them where the water that they put in their rice and their food came from? No. That would have been very rude. I ate on. Even when I used fancy water filters it took less than six months for me to contract intestinal worms.

My first sign that I had worms was that I was hungry all the time. Second, no matter how much I seemed to eat, I was losing weight. I informed my mission leaders of the situation and they immediately sent some deworming pills my way. The worms cleared up, and my symptoms went away. I was privileged enough to have this convenience available to me. I was an American missionary. I had the money and resources to be able to keep me as healthy as possible in the circumstances I was in.

But as I worked and lived all across Negros Occidental I couldn’t help but think about the local people who were born and raised in those conditions. I thought of their emaciated bodies and rotten teeth. I thought of their perpetual illnesses. So many of the Filipinos that I loved knew no other life than one that brought illness and ailment that could have been prevented if they had clean water.

I don’t mean to put down the entire Filipino nation over this either. I know that their national and local governments are working to improve their infrastructures including the plumbing and water systems.

The problem that I do see in so many parts of the world is that clean drinking water is being seen as a privilege instead of a right.

Clean water is important, and living without it is hard. I didn’t even know that half of it, but I got a glimpse every time I had to shower in yellow rusty-smelling water. At some point I quit using that shower. Instead I bathed by ladling water over myself with water from the hose tap, which was cleaner because at least I could put a cloth filter over it.

Water is beautiful and wonderful. Water brings life and health. Water is our greatest natural good, but unfortunately it is also our worst natural bad. Disease and filth are spread through the water of the world. If nothing is done to help purify the fresh water of the world, the pain and illnesses that we face as humans will only get worse.

By: Kelli King

Kelli King resides in Boston, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication/Media Studies from Brigham Young University.

About the author: Farina King

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