by Joy Thierry Llewellyn
“Kathmandu: What is the Worth of a Well?”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery knew the power of water in an arid land. “What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince in Saint-Exupery’s 1943 classic, Le Petit Prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well.” In Shanti Sewa Griha Leper Clinic and Rehabilitation Centre, the interior courtyard’s three-tiered well is both the physical and emotional centre of the community space. It is also available to everyone, including the people who live in the slum next door to the leper clinic.
You and I would consider access to drinking water a given, but here, as in much of Nepal, many people do not have the same experience. How wasteful and careless we can be at home in Canada where we just turn on the tap and let the water run—to rinse a plate or get really cold water to drink.
Water is sacred to people all over the world and plays an important role in many religions, from Christian baptism to Hindu and Muslim daily cleansing ablutions. In ancient Greece, the River Styx separated the living world from that of the dead. Mohamed said the most praiseworthy deed was “To give water to drink”. In the Shinto religion of Japan, you will be purified if you stand under a waterfall. Five million pilgrims and tourists visit the healing waters of Lourdes, France, each year hoping to find some relief from physical, spiritual, or emotional pain. Water not only feeds our body but it can wash away our sins, and the tall fountain in that clinic courtyard is a cause for celebration and joy as it fulfills a primal survival need.
I can hear my seventh or eighth grade science teacher telling us human cells consist of 60 to 95% water. As historian Thomas Fuller said in 1732: “We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.” In the case of Nepal, the worth of a well and the water in it rests solely on the question: “Is the water drinkable?” Too many people in this struggling country live someplace where the answer is “No.”