Drowning in Uncertainty: Svaneti

This is a continuation of the saga which began in last week’s article.

My wife went to Tbilisi for a few days while I was wrestling with the water issues. This was great timing: she had a big fat shopping list for Lilo Mall, mostly things for Christmas-New Year, and I was free to tinker with the H2O in her absence, taking the time it would need with only my own minimal discomfort to worry about, not hers too.

First I had to thaw out the new pipes, the 150m of plastic ones I had just bought in Zugdidi and hooked up. To do this I must boil some water, put it into a plastic bottle big enough for several liters and strong enough to take the heat, and then add lots of salt. The combination, hot salt water, would be the best thing (car antifreeze not being recommended in drinking water systems) to effect a local thaw.

I lugged my hot salt water bottle up to the start point with rubber gloves and a funnel, disconnected the plastic pipe, and began pouring. It gurgled down into the hose, bit by bit, and I lay it down to let time, gravity, and the heat and salt do their thing. It would take a while, possibly some hours.

Meantime I did other home chores, such as chopping wood in the garage, bringing some of it in, cooking and eating, washing up, mucking out the barn and so on. Every now and then I checked the near end of the pipe to see if anything—bits of broken up ice, water—was starting to emerge, indicating that the thaw was in process. Eventually this became the case. As I only had a few hours until the sun went down at 4 pm and we began to dip into below freezing temperatures again, time was definitely a factor. If I couldn’t get this to work before then, any water left in the pipe might just re-freeze! Once it began running, I must reconnect the source end, far away uphill, and let the fresh water push out the salt.

I actually had to do the salting twice in one day to get my desired result. Then I joined it back up at the top, and let it run as the twilight set in. I went out to check it at 7 pm and then 9 pm, well into freezing temperatures, and it was still running—not into the house yet, but along the road (not being driven over by any more cars than was necessary!) and back into the river which runs parallel. So far so good.

Next morning the water was still running—hooray, a step in the right direction! I waited a few more hours to be as sure as possible that we were above freezing, then joined it back to the house and luxuriated in my first proper hot shower in about two weeks... This while my wife was making the long journey back home from Tbilisi in a minivan about half full of just her shopping for the shop. And I was able to run the washing machine as well. Joy!

She returned, we unloaded, then I ordered her into the shower just in time before I had to disconnect the water from the house for the night. In the meantime I had filled every water container from 1 to 200 liters, and put a couple of our biggest pots on the big wood-burning Svan stove for the evening and following day’s hot water. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do; and bless her, my wife was and remains willing to stick by me through these trials, while I try to minimize them for her.

Today, as I write this... the pipe, which I left running into the river while I went to school in Becho this morning, reportedly stopped running while I was away. Inexplicable! During the day, in the sun, above freezing? Well, there was a trickle emerging from it when I came back at about 4 pm, but not the steady flow I was used to.

This is one of the hard things for me. I like to think that I have a fair grasp of the basic laws of nature operating around me; those events which surprise or puzzle me I try to winkle out the truth of, by reiterative observation-and-hypothesis cycles or simply by asking questions of Google. Here, I was stumped.

It was friends of ours, dropping by for a gander at the massive new line of “this just in” goods from yesterday, who provided a clue to what had happened. Turns out that I was lacking a crucial piece of information. Someone had been working on the spring which is the source of the whole village’s water, today. And they had turned it off as a matter of course. Of course! Our water hadn’t frozen, it had simply been stopped!

Tomorrow, if the proceedings of today haven’t frozen part of the pipe and thus blocked it from there down, we’ll have water running again. If they have frozen it, I’ll just do my hot brine routine again; it is already just that, a routine. Come spring, when everything has thawed for six months or more, we’ll seek a more permanent, radical solution to the annual hydrological nightmare.

Hey, you can’t just call a plumber here. Best you can do is beg the attention of an indulgent neighbor if you get really stuck with plumbing or electrical struggles or other obscure and possibly dangerous “arcane knowledge gaps”. I try to do this as little as possible, so as not to be a perpetual bother. Mostly it works, if my patience and my wife’s nerves hold out. But hey, we communities should also be here for each other when it’s needed. I like to think that we are; we are, in any case.

Very worst case? Melt all the snow around us and use it for everything.

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at


He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:


Tony Hanmer

17 December 2015 21:01