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Column: Water, water, not quite everywhere

Growing up during a drought can leave an impression

When I was a kid, I came across a photo in the local newspaper that has never left me. It was the height of summer in Australia and we were years into a drought that was drying out the country, leaving it a tinderbox ready to burn — and burn it did, through all the forests, fields and fauna.

The focus of the image was a cow lying on its side in a field that was blackened and smoking, still smouldering from the fire that had gone through hours before.

Over the cow stood a farmer, and slung over his slumped shoulder was the rifle he had just used to put the cow out of its misery, because despite the heat the cow hadn’t died in the fire it hadn’t been able to escape.

One hand, out front, held the stock of the rifle stable. His other hand was covering his down-turned face, and he was crying.

Behind him, other cattle could be seen. All in the same state: blackened, dead or dying.

That image, published almost 20 years ago in Australia, is seared into my brain. It’s what I think of when I think about climate change.

I grew up in Australia during a period known as the Millennium Drought. It was from the mid-to-late 1990s through to about 2010, and is regarded as the worst drought in Australia since European settlement.

Daily newspapers reported not just the weather forecast, but also the amount of water held in the reservoirs and dams around the city where I lived.

I remember this because I read the newspaper daily from about the age of eight at the behest of my mother. It was one of my daily chores, and her reasoning was that if I was old enough for action movies and video games, I was old enough to know about the real thing — and the real thing was ugly.

Growing up in a drought, I spent a lot of time thinking about climate change, which to this day I think of as all about water — an abundance, or lack thereof.

In those formative years of my life, I had the importance of water drilled into my skull daily.

It wasn’t just newspapers and the rest of the media and the government and the scientists, it was also the water bill each month (yes, water is metered in Australia, and when there were drought conditions in place, you paid a lot of money).

Under the iron rule of my parents, that meant we had two-minute showers, no water fights, no washing your car in your driveway, no watering your lawn.

Any gardens on our street that were suspiciously green had little signs somewhere visible that defensively explained that the homeowners used self-collected tank water to keep their front yards from turning into a dust-bowl.

Outside of the cities, the situation wasn’t just dead gardens and insufficiently long showers — it was true misery.

I learned that climate change isn’t just quirky changes to weather patterns — it’s prolonged drought, fire, floods, and death. It compounds itself, and gets worse with each year, never giving anyone a break. It’s lost livelihoods, communities demolished, families destroyed.

As I write this on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, in Fernie, B.C., global news outlets are reporting about a study from the United Nations that unequivocally places the blame for climate change on human activity.

I listened to it being talked about on the radio, I’ve taken the time to go have an entirely inadequate read of the dot points of the report itself, and while I think the report is interesting and worth a deeper dive, I can’t help but feel both utter misery that this conversation is still happening, and bewilderment that climate change is still a topic of debate at all.

When I was 13, I wondered if there was even a future to look forward to. In my corner of planet Earth, there was no water, the news was all about how everything was going wrong, and how farmers were losing their livelihoods and dying (mostly to suicide) as a result of what the climate was doing. It all seemed very urgent.

That particular drought broke in 2010 (right after a fire season that killed 173 people and countless wildlife), but agricultural land in Australia continues to degrade from longer, hotter, dryer summers. The fires are more frequent, and they burn for longer and deep into cooler seasons.

Years later, living in another country on another continent in a different hemisphere, I still cringe every time I go past a luscious green lawn being drowned by a sprinkler that’s been going at it all day, and I still feel guilt any time I waste water I didn’t need to waste. I know I’m living somewhere different, with a different climate, and different rain patterns but, as we’ve all just seen, droughts can sneak up and hang around. The longer they last, the more dangerous they get, the more risk of fire.

The rain that we got this weekend was certainly appreciated, but I think it’s probably time for a little more appreciation and planning. I think Canadians need to start appreciating water a little more, even if just to temper some entitlements.

In my humble opinion, that means less wastage, more water tanks, automatic summer water restrictions and more public education on the capacity of our water supplies.

There’s a lot of water here in Canada, but it’s only here until it isn’t.

-Scott Tibballs is the editor of The Free Press.