While in Ethiopia in August to learn more about what they do about drinking water, I visited the Debre Damo Monastery. About 1,600 years old, it is situated on a flat-topped outcropping of solid rock. The only way in or out is by climbing a sheer cliff using a 15 meter rope made from woven rawhide. The top supports a community of about 150 monks. Certainly the most extreme location I found people living in this most northern part of the country. Tufts of green in the landscape below reminded me that it was still their short rainy season.
The question in my mind is that these men live on top of a solid piece of rock - what do they do for drinking water? The site has been in constant use for centuries, so they must have solved this essential question long ago. The answer is found in the rain catchment pools carved into the stone itself.
Although many consider the water here to be holy, the source is vulnerable to pollution. The pools are open to the sky so bird droppings can fall in, a resident troupe of monkeys use the same water source, and anything that lands on the bare rock surrounding the pools can be blown or washed in. The abundance of algae on the surfaces is an indication that nutrients are present. (Algae could easily be transported to this place on the legs of birds.) The water I sampled was positive for coliform bacteria.
It would be interesting to return in the dry season. If I go again I now know to bring a wider range of water test kits. I would like to check water quality when contaminants are likely to be more concentrated due to evaporation. Time and opportunity did not permit on this visit, but it would be interesting to talk to the monks about their perceptions of drinking water quality. Is there any evidence of illness caused by this water? Are they interested in treating it or even reducing evaporation? Maybe not. There were some very old men up there. Perhaps in this case the habits and traditions of centuries are as sustaining as the water itself.