Pipe Dreams

“No!” Tika snatched the juicy pieces of mango from the rock next to her. The chubby tupai gave a small shriek and scrambled back into the brush, its bushy brown tail bobbing low in the grass. A skinnier tupai peeped warily through some leaves.

Banyu threw his head back and laughed, rolling onto his back and clutching his belly. Tika scowled at him.

“It’s not funny! They keep trying to steal my fruit,” she said. The two little tupai had a habit of showing up whenever she brought a snack with her to the special clearing in the forest behind her house. Sometimes, if she wasn’t paying attention, they’d get away with a piece of mango or a bite of banana. She thought the tupai were the most annoying animal in all of Sulawesi.

Banyu rolled back over onto his stomach. “Why don’t you ever give them any? Maybe they’re hungry.” He picked up a bright blue pencil and resumed coloring the drawing they were making for school.

“Yeah, but what if I’m hungry too?” Tika said as she moved the mango pieces to a different spot. “They don’t share with me; I don’t share with them.” She flopped back down next to Banyu and picked through the colored pencils. Her family didn’t always have fresh fruit to snack on. No way she was sharing with a sneaky little furball.

They continued to draw for a short while, then packed their things and left the clearing. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and the air was noticeably cooler. Banyu said goodbye and headed down the road to his house. Tika would see him again tomorrow at school.

Tika walked down the narrow dirt road, making her way to the other end of the little village. The houses were all short and made of wood, with small bushy gardens in the front. Some people relaxed in chairs outside or pushed wheelbarrows along the road as they finished the last of the day’s work. Most families, like hers, worked the nearby rice farms to make a living.

As soon as she made it through the front door of her family’s house, Tika knew something was off. Her parents halted their conversation and stood up from the worn table.

“What’s wrong?” Tika asked.

Her mother came over and kneeled in front of her, giving her a sad smile. “Your father and I have something we need to tell you. We need you to be a big girl.” She reached out and gently placed her hands on Tika’s shoulders.

“What do you mean, Mama?”

Tika’s mother said, “You know how we haven’t been having much rain lately? And how your father has been working extra hard to make up for the crops that aren’t growing?”

Tika nodded.

“Well, we need your help, Tika. Your father would like you to help him on the rice fields for a while. You always work so hard, and the rice fields need people who are as big and strong as our little girl.”

Tika started to smile. “Don’t worry, Mama. I can help.” She stood up as tall as she could and puffed her chest out. “I can learn things fast. Will I start helping tomorrow after school?”

Her mother’s smile faded. Tika’s father stepped forward and cleared his throat. “You won’t be going to school tomorrow. Or the day after. Just for now, we need you to help out. Do you understand?”

“I won’t get to go to school anymore?” Tika asked. Her head sunk low as the news sank in. “I won’t see Banyu anymore?”

“You can still see him, but not at school,” Tika’s father answered, kneeling down next to his wife. “I promise, this is only for a while, just until the drought is over.”

Tika felt tears welling up in her eyes. She had been so excited to show her class the drawing she made with Banyu of their villages, but now she’d never get to show it. What if she never went back?

She threw the drawing and colored pencils on the floor, turned from her mother, and ran down the hall to her room.

Meanwhile, in one of Oceanica’s business districts, two representatives of the Water Alliance sat huddled in front of a computer screen in a bare office overlooking the city.

Joyo adjusted himself in his chair and clasped his hands in front of his great belly and said, “Ms. Price, we completely understand what you’re saying, but the people of Oceanica need help now, not in some far-off future. Several rivers in East Kalimantan have stopped flowing, and the rice fields of Sulawesi don’t have enough water to grow. That leaves us with the only option of desalinating ocean water into fresh water. Now, I don’t know if you’re aware, but we don’t have the money to build desalination plants or the pipes needed to transport the fresh water. Surely you understand the emergency.” He flashed his biggest smile.

The expressionless face on the computer screen blinked. “I do understand, but we cannot help you. Australasia cannot give you money in exchange for nothing. Surely you understand our position.”

His smile frozen on his face, Joyo slowly balled his fists. A little vein appeared on his forehead. Just as he opened his mouth to tell Ms. Price just how understanding he wasn’t, his partner Vikal quickly leaned forward and replied, “Of course, we understand. We would never expect you to just give us money for free. That would be ridiculous! Right, Joyo?”

Joyo mumbled something under his breath.

“See? We are in agreement.” Vikal slid his slender frame back into his chair. “We’ll come back to you with an offer, Ms. Price. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.”

The face in the video responded, “You are welcome.” The video winked out to black as Ms. Price hung up on the call. Joyo and Vikal sat in silence for a few moments.

Joyo’s arms suddenly exploded outward and gestured wildly. “Who does she think she is? Does she not know how important water is for survival?” He thumped the table with the flat of his hand. “It’s not like we can just conjure fresh water out of thin air.”

Vikal stood up smoothed the creases in his suit jacket. “Don’t worry. We’ll be able to build more desalination plants soon enough. All we need to do is offer Australasia something valuable. Then they’ll give us money.”

Wiping his sweaty face with his tie, Joyo exhaled loudly. “Desalination plants and water pipes are expensive,” he grunted. “What could we possibly offer her? Oceanica has nothing.”

Vikal had walked to the window and was gazing out over the city. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “We have ideas,” he said quietly, as if to himself.

“What?” Joyo squinted at him.

“Ideas,” Vikal said louder this time. He turned with a flourish and lifted his pointy chin. “We may only have a couple desalination plants in the region, but they are incredibly efficient. I say we pour the rest of our money into water desalination research and sell what we learn for a hefty price.”

Joyo nodded slowly. “Hefty. I like hefty.” He glanced at Vikal. “How much money do we have?”

Vikal turned back to the window. “Not much. We’ll have to get lucky.”

Sophie Price closed her laptop and flopped forward onto her desk with a groan, letting her arms stretch out over the mess of papers and folders. The laptop’s metal casing felt cool on her cheek. She inhaled deeply and immediately sputtered and coughed as several loose strands of hair were sucked into her mouth.

“Ms. Price?” asked a high-pitched voice from the corner. It was her assistant Meg. Sophie had forgotten she was in the room.

Meg stood up and rushed over with a water bottle. Her high heels made a tapping noise on the wooden floors, and the curls in her hair bounced with each step.

Sophie pulled herself upright in her chair and waved a dismissing hand. “I’m fine. Don’t bother. I just need to collect my thoughts.” She swept the hair out of her face and tried to regain her composure.

Australasia had their own Water Alliance, which was created to make sure everyone in the region had access to clean water and to work together with nearby regions to help each other out. Sophie was in charge of dealing with Oceanica. So far it wasn’t going so well.

“That went well!” Meg piped, clasping her hands in front of her.

Sophie raised an eyebrow at her and said, “Actually, it didn’t. In fact, it’s worse now.”

“Oh,” Meg said. She plopped down into an overstuffed chair by the desk. “How so?”

Sophie began sifting through some of the papers on her desk. “I was intending to ask Oceanica for their help, but they ended up asking us for help first. They’re going through a drought, and they don’t have enough money to build more desalination plants, more pipes, or anything like that.”

She picked up a paper here and there, tossing it to the side after a quick glance. “Now, we have both wealth and desalination plants to bring us water. That’s how we turn salt water into fresh water. However, our machines are outdated and, quite frankly, inefficient. They use too much energy. Our predictions show we’ll soon have to shut the plants down. We can’t afford to spend money on researching new desalination methods right now.”

Meg frowned and looked at the floor. “So what you’re saying,” she said, “is that we’re losing money with the desalination plants we have now, but we can’t afford to try something else?”

“That’s right,” Sophie answered, casually crumpling one of the papers. “We’re at a dead end, and we’re out of ideas.”

The sun beat down on Tika and her father as they rested on the edge of a large field in which they had been planting corn. They had been converting rice fields to corn fields and planting seeds for the past couple weeks. Corn doesn’t need as much water as their rice did; so they’d have a better chance of making money off the crops.

Tika took a big drink of water from the jug they had brought with them, then passed it to her father. His face was wrinkled and creased with dirt. Did she look that dirty too?

“What’s on your mind, young lady?” Her father asked, wiping away some of the water that had dribbled down his chin.

Tika looked at the ground. “When can I go back to school, Papa?” she asked.

Her father sighed. “Well, we have to wait for the rains to come back,” he said, gesturing at the sky, “or for people to bring more water to our area. Then things can go back to normal.”

Tika picked at the bark covering the log they were sitting on. “How can they bring more water here? Do they have to carry it?”

“Not exactly,” her father chuckled. “Some of our water gets recycled in big buildings to the south. Much of it comes from the nearby rivers and streams. The water flows here from other places, and we use it to grow the rice. Since they’re mostly dried up, the next best thing is to build large pipes that bring water to the farms.”

He leaned forward and hoisted himself to his feet. Dirt puffed into the air as he slapped at his pants in an effort to clean them off. Tika hopped to her feet and dusted her pants too.

She looked up and squinted against the sunlight. “But Papa, where does that water come from?” she asked. “If the rivers have no water, then that means there’s no water at the other end either.”

Her father looked down at her with an amused expression. “That’s a very good question. Grab your lunch pail, and I’ll tell you on the way home.” He picked up his own pail and satchel with a tired groan while Tika hurried to get her own things together.

They talked the whole way about where the water in Sulawesi comes from, and how her father helps get water to the farms. Tika learned that there were places where they turned salty ocean water into drinkable water. Her father described the big pipes that help bring that water to some of the other villages. The whole process fascinated her.

Tika skipped ahead excitedly. “When do we get our pipe, Papa?” She turned and look back at her father, still skipping.

A wide grin stretched across his sun-darkened face. “One day, Tika. I don’t know when, but one day.”

In the main office of Oceanica’s Water Alliance, a pale face on a computer screen stared with wide eyes.

“You can’t be serious,” the face said.

“Oh, we’re serious, Ms. Price,” Joyo insisted. He was so far forward on the edge of his seat it was a wonder he didn’t slip right off. His fingers tapped on his thighs excitedly out of view under the table.

The face responded, “But that’s impossible. Australasia has more desalination plants than Oceanica. Wouldn’t we have known about this?”

Vikal cleared his throat and spread his hands. “Yes, that is true. You have more plants than we do,” he acknowledged. “The difference is we’ve been putting more of our budget into researching the best energy-efficient improvements. We’d like to offer you our knowledge in exchange for money and materials to build new desalination plants and pipes.”

The face nodded and looked down. There was the sound of papers being shuffled around. “Yes . . . Yes, I think this could work. We’ll be able to cut our expenses in half. It could even result in a water surplus.”

Oceanica’s Water Alliance had invested all their remaining budget into speeding up desalination plant research. It was a gamble, but it paid off. Their researchers had found several ways to make the desalination process more energy efficient. This was valuable knowledge for Australasia.

Vikal stared at the screen with anticipation and asked, “So, do you like it? Do we have a deal?”

The face looked back up at them and smiled, which was surprising, as the face never seemed to smile. “We have a deal. We’ll keep the knowledge you learned in exchange for some of our wealth and resources. Excellent work, gentlemen.”

Joya and Vikal simultaneously let out huge sighs of relief.

Back in Sophie’s office, her assistant, Meg, couldn’t contain her excitement. “Ms. Price, isn’t this amazing? This completely solves Australasia’s water problem!” She began gathering all the paperwork into a folder, beaming.

“It sure does,” Sophie said. “Now that our desalination plants can be more efficient, they won’t get shut down. We’ll save money.” She leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms. Oceanica came through for them after all.

A musical chime sounded from Meg’s purse on the other side of the room. Meg abandoned her pile of papers and bustled over to the purse. She rummaged through it until she found her phone.

Sophie rolled her head over to look out the window. The last few months had been stressful. Not knowing what they were going to do about the impending water crisis kept Sophie from being able to truly relax. She took a deep breath and let it out, letting her arms flop down past the arms of the chair. The worst was over.

“Excuse me, Ms. Price?” It was Meg again. “It’s the Indus Valley Water Alliance.”

Sophie closed her eyes and grimaced. “What do they want?”

“Um, there’s a waterborne disease going around. It’s become an epidemic. They want help.”

Sophie pulled herself upright and smoothed her hair with her palms. It seems like there’s a new disease popping up in the world every day. This isn’t the first time this problem has plagued a region, and it won’t be the last. She glanced at Meg as she opened her laptop again. “Set up a call with them, please. We’re going to be here a while.”

Tika burst through the creaky wooden door of her family’s home and flung her backpack somewhere off to the side. She had a big smile on her face.

“Hi, Mama! Hi, Papa!” she yelled as she disappeared into her room.

“Someone’s in a good mood,” she heard her mother say loudly from the kitchen.

Tika quickly changed into a ratty pair of pants and gathered up a couple of long sticks from the corner of her room. It had been her first day back at school in a long time, and big trucks carrying all sorts of tractors and materials were driving through their village every day. Her father said they were finally getting the water they needed to keep the farms producing rice. They were getting the pipe!

She hurried back out to the kitchen where her mother was cutting a large pile of vegetables, and her father was resting in a chair. She carefully set the sticks on the floor.

“Where might you be off to in such a hurry, young lady?” her father asked. His hands were blackened with dirt from the day’s work.

Tika grabbed a small, burlap sack. “I’m meeting Banyu.” She stuffed the sack with some dried meat and veggies. “We’re going on an adventure. See? Those are our walking sticks. They’re also swords.” She gestured at the floor.

“An adventure! Sounds exciting,” her father said.

When the sack was full, Tika picked up her sticks and headed for the door. Just as she opened it, she remembered something important and ran back to the kitchen. Her mother raised an eyebrow as Tika grabbed a fat mango and stuffed it in the sack.

“It’s for the tupai,” Tika explained as she rushed back toward the front door. “They love when I bring fruit.” She hopped out the door and took off in the direction of the special clearing in the forest.

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