Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Water regime, or how to create and perpetuate misery

(Warning: long post)
Last Saturday we went to my mother in-law's summer house in the village of Rasnik. There was no supply of running water and we were not surprised, because water in Rasnik is often stopped, especially during summer weekends. My husband's aunt, who had been there since the middle of the week, said, "They had let the water (run), but many people watered their gardens, so the water was stopped again."
"Oh, don't buy this explanation," I replied. "Are people expected NOT to water their gardens? After all, they pay for the water they use! This is a village, people grow vegetables and depend on them. Remember how during socialism everything was in short supply and the authorities kept telling that commodities don't suffice because we are consuming them!"
Because water was not expected to return before Monday, we depended on several liters we had brought from Sofia, plus a public fountain several hundred meters away. I took no part in the water-supplying expeditions because my doctor had forbidden me to lift weights and to walk under the sun. However, on Sunday I had to go there once. My little boy, who is only beginning his toilet training, had a bowel movement in his pants. So I cleaned him with wet wipes as I could and went to the fountain to wash his clothes. I was a bit ashamed of the "perfume" cloud spreading around me. Happily, I saw nobody - everyone was hiding from the sun; it was the hottest time of the day forecasted to be the hottest for 2006.
The man maintaining the water pipes in Rasnik receives orders from the water company to stop the supply every time when there is some problem. As you can guess, the company needn't seek additional water sources or minimize transit losses. Why care that plenty of water leaks into the earth through the old porous pipes? If this makes the pressure fall, the company can always stop the water and so will have no problem - all problems are for the consumers.
And because nobody controls whether that man lets the water run again when he must, he can leave his fellow villagers without water for much longer than due. I'm sure he feels almighty, he is happy that a simple movement of his hand can keep hundreds withouth running water. He prefers to stop the water on weekends, because then many people from the cities of Sofia and Pernik come to Rasnik. To cap it all, he is an alcoholic and often gets so drunk that he forgets to release the water. For this reason, the village sometimes stays dry for a week or longer.
The villagers are old and poor. They cannot wage protests and legal battles. They even don't think of beating up the alcoholic (which I think would be quite acceptable in the situation). Instead, they have invested in wells in their yards so that to have some independence from the water company. The fact that everybody can dig a well and obtain water directly from his backyard shows that there is no real problem with the water availability in the region, all problems come from the water monopolist's impunity and the people's helplessness.
A number of cities and many towns and villages in Bulgaria suffer such regular stopping of water for hours and days. This is called rezhim na vodata (water regime); I don't know whether the word regime has such a meaning in English, because I have never read about a similar phenomenon in another country! I don't know how many Bulgarians live under water regime - tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions? My city Sofia is spared from it, except in early 1995. At that time, some empowered people wanted to fill their pockets by a project to capture the water of the small river Skakavitsa. But they first needed to prove that the city was short of water. For that purpose, they first let masses of water flow out of the main water supply for Sofia - the Iskar dam lake, in the summer of 1994. Then the dam lake was declared empty, water regime was endorced on Sofia and the Skakavitsa project was approved. Residents of the little town of Sapareva Banya protested, because they obtained their water from Skakavitsa. Anti-terrorist police was sent to "occupy" the town and beat the protesting grandmothers. In Sofia, the deaths of two babies from intestinal infections were attributed to the water regime. I don't know whether the Skakavitsa pipeline is still maintained and in use; it has served its function.
In earlier years, Bulgaria had also electricity regime - planned periodic blackouts. It was usually for several hours a day, but the most severe case followed the scheme "3 hours with electricity - 3 hours without it". That was in the 1984-85 winter when the Communists forcibly renamed the Bulgarian Turks. The electricity regime seems to have had no technological or economic reason and its aim is believed to have been political - to distract attention from the renaming. (Of course those who were losing their names cared little about the elecricity, but the Communist government apparently feared solidarity protests by other citizens.)
In later years, we occasionally suffered electricity regime. It was meant either to distract attention from different government failures or to convince the public that we need more nuclear power generators. There was never true shortage of electricity - actually, all the time Bulgaria was selling it to neighbouring countries, usually at lower prices than those we were paying for it. When in 1990 or 1991 my brother had his appendix removed, he didn't return from the hospital straight home. Instead, my mother took him to a cafe and they spent an hour, waiting for the electricity to return (my mother's apartment is at the 7th floor - too high to climb if the lift doesn't work and you have had recent surgery).
And at some later time things changed. Once I was attending an opposition rally (the party I had voted for was in opposition, as usual). The speaker was talking about the government's attempts to distract attention from its failures. I said to those nearest to me, "They can't fool me even in they impose electricity regime again."
"There will never again be electricity regime in Bulgaria," a young man replied.
"Why do you think so?" I asked, surprised.
"Because we already have a powerful banking system. The banks will never allow their computers to be subjected to arbitrary blackouts and power surges."
I remembered his words. He was right - planned blackouts never happened again. Both water and electricity regimes existed without objective reason, just because they were tolerated. Banks stopped tolerating electricity regime and it was abandoned. But citizens continue to tolerate water regime and it remains at many places. When Bulgarians criticize their own national psyche, one of the charges heard most often is that they have "sheep mentality" (ovchedushie). Alas, there is much truth in this statement.
Water (and electricity) regime is an example of misery. I want to differentiate misery from poverty, although they are interconnected and highly correlated. Poverty simply means having little resources. Misery is mainly about being helpless, at the hands of some Big Brother who feels free to take decisions about your life. It would be poverty if the water prices were too high for the people's incomes. You are not quite helpless in this situation - you can try to manage your daily life with less water consumption. In the misery of the water regime, it doesn't matter how economically you are using the water on Friday - your tap will anyway be dry on Saturday. Also, the individual at least in theory can make his way out of poverty by hard work, ingenuity or luck. Misery is always nation-scale, although it is felt in some places harder than in others. You can escape it only by emigration and even this usually doesn't help: by the time you decide to emigrate, misery has penetrated and engulfed your mind and you bring it with yourself wherever you go.
Misery was deliberately introduced in Bulgaria with socialism. A well-known instruction of the Stalin's governments to the Soviet occupation authorities in Bulgaria in the late 1940s includes, among many other things, orders to centralize electric and water supply and to destroy local water sources and power generations. Also, the Socialist idea of housing were ugly multi-storey apartment blocks. Have you mentioned how every totalitarian government tries its best to accommodate its subjects inside such blocks? A friend of mine calls them "hen-houses"; she hates them very much because as a child she lived in a real house, then it was demolished to build a block on the spot and her family was "compensated" with an apartment. In an individual house with a yard, you always retain some control over your life. You need no lift, you can install solar batteries or a small power generator, you can try and dig a well or at least a water-independent toilet of the type people have used for millenia (a hole in the ground with a wooden shelter over it; we have such one in Rasnik). In an apartment, you are completely helpless.
And because these days I seem unable to write a text without any mention of you-know-what conflict, let me finally connect the Bulgarian to the Palestinian experience. When Israel was pulling out of Gaza, I wasn't at all surprised to read that the Palestinian Authority intended to demolish the pretty houses left by the Jewish settlers and build instead multy-storey apartment blocks. Isn't it logical? If you want to prevent your subjects from growing into thinking, independent, freedom-loving human beings, lock them in hen-houses and keep repeating that you have "built homes" for them. You can rest assured that the misery surrounding them will reside in their souls.


Non-Blogging said...

Partly off topic, but check this:


A couple of the films - Alphabet of Hope, for example - sound interesting to me. Quite a rare chance to get a glimpse at the Bulgarian countryside here on the screen. I might have a chance to see some of the documentaries myself.

Maya M said...

So many Western journalists describe the situation in Bulgaria as awful after briefly looking at the most luxury part of the capital.
I think, to really do their job, they need to drive for an hour in ANY direction from Sofia, stop at a random place and describe what they see there.
I wonder, what words will then be used in their reports from the EU-member-in-several-months Bulgaria...