Running Water in Maliana

Running Water in Maliana

In urban Australia, fresh water seems so abundant we use it to flush toilets.  It is easy to forget how precious water is in the majority world. In Maliana, Timor Leste, fresh drinking/cooking water is obtained in bottles or from natural springs, yet for other purposes any running water will do. Volunteer Paul Tan reflects on this from his house by the Maliana canal, where lower water quality is just a fact of life.

We see her every so often, usually in the morning on our way to work. She’s no older that four, clutching a red plastic mug that holds her toothbrush and toothpaste, sauntering down to the irrigation canal to brush her teeth.

We cringe…

The network of irrigation canals that crisscross through the eastern part of Maliana Township have taken on a life of their own. On hot afternoons during the dry season, the ‘free range kids’ in the suco  – village – become busy little beavers in front of the house Esther and I have rented; we are fortunate in that our house is just beside the canal that runs through our suco. Using rocks, fallen tree branches and palm fronds, they build a dam across the canal; the water rises and the canal becomes a little swimming pool of their own making. Clothes are quickly and unashamedly shed before plunging into the water. Excited shouts and squeals will echo for the better part of an hour through our house. Until someone downstream comes up and gives them a telling off for stemming the flow of water. The dam would be reluctantly dismantled… till the next sultry day comes along…


The absence of a proper water distribution infrastructure has made the canals the lifeblood of the sucos that lie in their paths. Along the canal on any given day, we see…

… Motorbikes and bicycles being washed on the water’s edge; detergent, dirt sludge can be seen coursing into the canal during the process.

Children bathing in a river in Maliana

… A family or two doing their laundry, scrubbing their clothes along the walls of the canal and rinsing them in the flowing water.

… On every afternoon, at the end of their day’s run, the road dust and grime are being removed from the Dili to Maliana buses, with water being flung over the buses flowing back into the canal.

… The odd bather, with the shampoo and soap being rinsed off making its way downstream.

And in our minds’ eyes, we can’t get that image of a little girl brushing her teeth, with the same water, out of our heads…

How can she use that water? We ask.

As long as the water is moving, running, it is safe to use, isn’t it?


… came the simple reply.


Food for thought…

Paul’s article raises several interesting points to ponder:

  • Bathing and washing in canals raises obvious health concerns which should be addressed, yet the Timorese families prioritise their use of clean fresh water for drinking and cooking. This fresh water is obtained through much effort from springs, or cost from stores. Given their limited choices, are they actually being more responsible in their personal water management?
  • If fresh water was reserved for only drinking and cooking in your community, what would you use for bathing, laundry and other needs?
  • We in the developed world have greater choices and the benefits of education regarding hygiene and environment -not to mention available clean water. What are our responsibilities toward other communities in assisting water supply and education?

Paul and his wife Esther have volunteered in Maliana since January 2014, at both Oganisasaun Haburas Moris and Maliana Diocese.