“The driest spring on record follows the hottest ever summer, the third-warmest autumn, the sixth-warmest winter, the hottest March on record, the third-hottest July, and the hottest month ever recorded in Australia.” – Naaman Zhou, The Guardian
“Please bring the rain with you.” – my WWOOF Host
If you turn on a faucet and fresh water appears that you can drink, wash, cook, and clean with, you are fortunate beyond measure. If you can let said water run without fear or thought that it is in scarce supply or may otherwise run dry, you are among a special few. If it rains where you live with the regularity it is meant to and a seasonal dry spell is temporary with all but certainty, then simply count your blessings because for many many more, this is not their story.
In the first four weeks of my sabbatical on the continent of Australia, I have been confronted by the complete and utter degree to which I take for granted…fresh water. Even as I consider myself to be environmentally conscious, not wasteful, support organizations such as Face Africa and the communities of Flint, MI, it turns out, I come from a world where fresh water as a precious commodity is taken for granted regularly and often, much more than I realized. I have been confronted to broaden my horizons and expand my thinking about the critical life source that fresh water provides each and every one of us, and that water crises are not a critical issue only relegated to underserved countries in the depths of India, Sub-Saharan Africa, or the South Pacific. With my recent decision to take some extended time off, I chose to WWOOF, volunteering my time on organic farms throughout Australia and Tasmania as part of my experience. Beyond pushing me out of my comfort zone, taking my travels off the beaten path is allowing me to see Australia from a local perspective, get in touch with nature and gain a better understanding of the full impact the extremely dry climate, drought and limited access to water is having around the country…and just to be clear, the bushfires are continuing to burn throughout much of Australia with a long recovery road ahead.
So, what does access to fresh water mean across much of Australia? In my experience thus far, the sentiment and customs around water are completely different here. Drinking water has been available, living water is on restriction and rainwater has been all but non-existent. The question is in fact “where is the rain?” As I began to write this post, I found myself in Lismore sitting on the back lanai of my second WWOOF host, who is experiencing a third consecutive year in the worst drought since the inception of their macadamia nut farm over 15 years ago. The usually full dam on the farm is nearly run dry and if the rain does not come soon, they will be forced to purchase water from the town’s reserves which once ordered will take 2 weeks to come. They are waiting for the rain, having asked me to bring the rain with me as we planned for my arrival, and acutely aware that the dry conditions on their farm are not different from their brothers and sisters experiencing the unprecedented bushfires further south.
I knew coming here that it may be the first location in my travels where water restrictions would be in effect. You can physically feel the impact of the water restrictions as one can never fully relax into the post-traumatic deprivation operating underneath. I was generally warned ahead of my travels that volunteers may be asked to stick to 4-minute showers, use other ways to conserve water, and it is absolutely at the top of everyone’s mind to save as much water as possible. My hosts’ grandchildren looked on in disbelief as I relayed to them that the average shower time in the US is easily around 10 to 15 minutes, let alone the 30 minutes or more it takes me to shower AND wash my hair when I wear it naturally. Apparently, all my co-washing and working in curl product is no help to the environment as far as water conservationists or Australians living around the bushland go. The ever so slight inconveniences jarred my awareness of just how different my life would be without consistent access to fresh water. I thought of myself as being fully prepared for my first hands on experience of how communities cope when in drought, however, it did not really hit me until my host handed me a bucket to catch the initial water that runs from the shower while I stand there waiting for it to heat up, with the intention of then watering the outdoor plants and vegetable garden.
Standing there, a lifetime of having fresh water available flashed before my eyes. Faint remnants of my father yelling out “stop wasting the water” in my childhood (and honestly anytime I visit my parents as an adult now) referenced the cost of running water more than a lack of supply. Places like New York City are notorious for apartment buildings where you have to let the shower run a bit to get it hot, and most people know water is to be respected, but the reality is that I have never been for want as one of the 9 million customers receiving the more than 1 billion gallons of fresh water pumped into New York City each day. I have never had to operate from the premise that there is not more water coming, or that there will not be enough. I suppose when the dams run dry, animals and crops cannot survive, and the rain simply has not come, one would prepare as best possible to potentially face life’s greatest challenges. Yet bucket in hand, it was at that moment I truly learned just how much I can never take fresh water for granted again.
For those directly impacted by the bushfires, all three water uses, drinking, living and rain will be an on-going source of concern in the coming weeks, with the lack of rain largely contributing to the fires enduring. Extreme climate events increasingly demonstrate our ever-evolving planet is out of balance, with places like Indonesia receiving too much rain, Australia not enough, and both conditions leading to the loss of life. I echo Russell Crowe’s call to action, question everything about NYC’s balmy January, and do not understand how anyone can believe climate change is not real.
On December 18, 2019, Australia’s hottest day on record, with an average temperature across the country of 105.62°F (40.9°C), I was just getting warmed up in Geelong, Victoria where it was 97°F (36.1°C) that day. For me the heat was a welcomed reprieve from the initial cold I experienced when arriving in early December to Melbourne, borrowing coats and jackets from my friends because I had only packed for summer. It turns out that day was a foreshadowing for the dangerous bushfires to come, highlighting Australia’s driest spring on record where an average of just 1.078 inches (27.4mm) of rain fell for the season. When combined with extreme above average temperatures, drought, fuel availability (i.e. dry land, bush, tree bark, leaves, etc…) and high winds, the conditions are ripe for fire weather and catastrophic danger levels of fire risk whether sparked from a lightning strike or a carelessly discarded cigarette. Knowing now what I did not know then, it makes my “Gratitude Wednesday” post from that day now feel simply out of touch, and enjoying the warm summer breeze is a little, or a lot less sweet.
In bringing this piece to a close, the rain has started to fall, at least the first bit. I made it to Byron Bay, the one place everyone said I must visit for its lively beach town. My time in Byron turned out to be less on the beach and more puddle hopping though I can’t say I felt deprived in any way. I joined in the expressions of joy, and yet part of me could not help but ask from a spiritual perspective how the collective focus on the lack of water is not helping to bring about the desired change.
Growing in my belief in the law of attraction, I am increasingly seeing the benefit of letting go of scarcity thinking in my own life. What would happen if the whole of Australia focused on the abundance of water that is available versus reinforcing that there is not enough? Or drawing on the dances of Aboriginal rainmakers, take seriously the practice of being in harmony with the land on which we live, while understanding rain as a gift from the Creator. Everything we need to take care of ourselves and our planet is available to us, but it is up to us to properly tap in and utilize it. When combined with tangible action, focusing on abundance does not absolve us of responsibility but rather creates space to release our collective resistance, and for even greater solutions for addressing climate change to emerge. While I will never know how much my presence did or did not help to bring the rain, I do know from this point forward when it comes to fresh water, I only have a new level of one feeling…gratitude.
For a deeper analysis of Australia’s dangerous bushfire weather see the report “Special Climate Statement 72—dangerous bushfire weather in spring 2019” from the Bureau of Meteorology.
This piece is based on the writer’s experience between 3 January 2020 to 13 January 2020.