In praise of 10,000 year old water

Water I have mentioned before, either the joys of swimming in the larger of the many cold and hot springs, or the difficulties of ensuring there is sufficient water in the house for daily tasks, due to the town water cutting out for long periods of the day.

Now we are in summer, a good supply of water is vital. Two days ago outside temperature peaked at 55 degrees. In the desert you lose about 10 liters of water a day just in sweat, and that is without activity. There is an old saying “Horses sweat, men perspire, women glisten”, well I do not “glisten”, sweat pours off me even when I am only typing. It is so hot in the house now that everything has taken on heat. Even with the overhead fans on, or the bedroom shutters open all night, and the door and all other windows open from 5am until the temperature rise really starts at 8 or 9am, the rooms do not lose the heat.

Coming inside, I must open the front door with a handkerchief wrapped around my hand, as the metal handle is scorching; I pick up a glass to get a drink – the glass is warm; the computer heats up so quickly I am turning it off every second hour for an hour, in fear of it exploding; the mattress and sheets are warm, which would be wonderful in winter but not when you are already hot; water from the taps is hot nearly all day, excepting early morning. When you put clothes on, they have the feel you get when you put something on immediately after ironing it – except I don’t have an iron and this is simply stored heat in the fabric; my contact lens solution bottle now sits in an esky of water to keep it at the required 25 degrees or lower (and actually I think it is still more like 30 degrees); fruit and vegetables in the kitchen are no longer cool and refreshing, they are well above body temperature; even the metal handles of my coat hangers are hot to touch!

My landlord/neighbor A. regularly takes the donkey cart and gets me two large water containers of water, from a source where the water is purified for use of the large army barracks not far from Siwa (we have army boys in uniform in town almost daily, collecting bread and other essentials). This water is clean and fresh tasting, and has become essential as I have been advised not to drink the tap water. For the first few months and on previous visits I had been drinking tap water as well as using it for cooking, cleaning, showering, even though it has a strong smell of sulphur and leaves a sand coloured stain on any container it is stored in. I had wondered why many Siwans also bought bottled water. I thought it was just for guests or for aspirational reasons, like some Egyptians preferring Nescafe instant coffee to their own beautiful Arabic coffee, not for taste but because it suggests Western affluence and sophistication.

Then T said I should not be drinking the tap water or cooking with it, and he always used bottled water for cooking when I ate with him at his place. I thought he was being over cautious, a bit like the tourists who drink bottled water throughout their stay in Egypt, and because the water in Sharm, where he spends half the year, is bad and everyone does drink bottled water there. I was never a big fan of bottled water in Australia, couldn’t see the need for it given the treatment of water there before it gets to the household taps, so I had gone straight on to local water thinking that being Siwan water it was probably good for me.

The water in Siwa, which is what makes the oasis possible at all in the middle of the desert, comes from an aquifer deep underground, and is at least 10,000 years old (some estimates say 10,000 – 30,000 years). This is not, as you may visualize it, a big lake of water sitting under layers of rock, but water that was stored in porous rock, at a time when the Sahara which is now sand and stone was grassland and rainfall was much more regular. The 230 plus springs in Siwa are where the water from the giant aquifer that underlies this depression in the desert (Siwa and surrounding area are below sea level) has come up through fissures in the rocks. Since a few decades ago there has been a bottling plant here, and several brands of Siwa water are now sold here and exported across Egypt and the Middle East.

As A. and T. explained it, the town water is not so pure and aside from the sulphur smell and taste, has sand in it. So I am still washing self and clothes in it, but grateful that A. gets drinking and cooking water for me when he goes to get supplies for his family. His wife, he says, will only drink water from the spring in their garden, so there must also be discernable difference in the water purified for the army and what comes up in the springs. For me, the difference in taste between the tap water and the water A. brings has been enough to convince me, and if I am without that water now I get bottled water, which is inexpensive at under 40c Australian for 1.5 liters.

I was also concerned that Habibi was not drinking much water, and then remembered that cats have a much stronger sense of smell than humans, and so she probably did not like the smell and taste of the town water. Changed her over to the other water, and she is lapping it up. This is a relief, as there is so little I can do to cool her down. She spends much of the day stretched out near the front door; because I have to close the rest of the house up to try to keep temperature below 30, the gap under the door is the only place air comes in. It is hot air for much of the day, which is why I don’t have the windows open even a fraction, but she seems to prefer some air to none at all, even if it is warm.

I really have no complaint about the town water being the way it is. I was given a tour of Canberra’s water processing plant while I was living on Mt Stromlo many years ago, I know how much treatment Australian water undergoes, so it doesn’t really surprise me that all tap water is not what it seems. I used to walk down the mountain to catch a bus to work each morning, and sometimes the men from the plant were coming off night shift and would give me a lift, I learnt about their work, and I was invited to tour the treatment plant. I was allowed to taste the water before processing, as it is when it comes in from the catchment area, even though I knew a dead cow or other things may have dropped into that untreated water on its way to “purification”. The catchment water tasted very different to the treated water, making me realize we are probably drinking some things that we would rather not, to prevent the risks of ill health from other things that would otherwise be in Australian tap water.

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