A while back I assisted on an eco-tourism project in Padre Ramos, in the remote Northwestern corner of Nicaragua. One of our tasks was to improve the palm thatched, wall-less and floorless, restaurant in town so that they could host foreign tourists. I was in charge of re-making the menu and noticed the only beverage offered was Coca-Cola, despite the fact that right next door was a house that processed coconuts. The operation consisted of three grinning teenage boys jamming to salsa while hacking away with machetes to slice off the nuts’ thick green husks. A tall glass of delicious coconut juice from the machete boys ran 12 cents while the restaurant charged 40 cents for a glass of Coke. In spite of this, the locals, who had an average salary of a few dollars a day, never drank coconut juice and loved Coke. I was inspired to dig deeper into the matter, from then on I talked to every Nicaraguan I met about beverages.
Water has an image problem in Nicaragua. The poorest Nicaraguans drink only water, they don’t have money for juice, soda, sports drinks, coffee, or any other beverage. To drink something other than water says to your peers, “I have expendable income, I am doing well.” If you are hosting a social event here it is an absolute must to provide sweetened beverages, if you only provide water people will gossip about how cheap you are for weeks.
It goes beyond water is bad and everything else is good. There is a beverage hierarchy in Nicaragua. Water is at the bottom, above it are home-made juices and coconut water, sold in little plastic bags or ladled out from 5 gallon buckets, the next step up is domestically made bottled juices, coffee, sweetened drinks and sodas and on top of the heap are American brands of drinks and sodas such as Gatorade, Sprite, and the undisputed king, Coke.
Water’s place at the bottom is not just a matter of fashion, getting parasites or toxic exposure from water supplies occurs frequently. Even in urban areas with water treatment plants there are problems, the plants have frequent mechanical failures and when heavy rains come the run-off from agriculture and industry can overwhelm the treatment plants and contaminate the water. The enforcement of environmental regulations here is near nonexistent.
The consequences are an increase in chronic disease (such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes) from all the sweetened beverages and widespread chronic dehydration, many people just won’t drink anything if water is the only option. At the health clinics where I have volunteered patients come in frequently with conditions caused, at least partly, by dehydration: urinary tract infections, chronic headaches, and every variety of kidney disorder.