Water

When I came back from Mexico to Toronto three years ago, I stayed in a friend’s house in the suburbs. One of the things that shocked me was the amount of water gushing from her shower-head: it was four times what I was used to here. To her, it was a normal amount, and she found my concern odd.

When your city is right beside one of the largest lakes on earth, fed by one of the greatest freshwater systems anywhere, water itself gets little respect. When your water supply comes in form the Pacific during four months of the summer, your attitude shifts. I was used to the notion of conserving water. At this house, we order a 5,000-litre tanker truck to come when the rain-filled cistern is empty – and we aren’t profligate with what we use.

Mexico is a great teacher regarding water, although it doesn’t always heed its own lessons. Mexico City, for example, is built on a drained lake-bed, and now suffers a severe water shortage. It doesn’t feed rain into household cisterns, or do what farmers here do: collect it in reservoirs for livestock through the dry months, which run from October to June.

The phrase “tropical downpour” is one I heard used in Toronto sometimes during a summer storm. Part of Lakeshore Boulevard becomes unusable, or a section of the Don Valley Parkway, and some people’s basements flood; but usually within hours, the roads are normal, and in a day or so homeowners pump out their floodwater.

I had to come here to experience a true monsoon storm. My little house, built on sloping land, has a stone staircase outside, and I could look out my window and see the stones disappear entirely under the cascading torrent. In town, while an umbrella protected my upper body, I had to wade across streets, even sloping ones. My shoes were wet all one week because every time I went out with them half dried, they became soaked again.

“Just try sandals,” a friend suggested, ten minutes before the rain got to the straps on his pair, and they came apart. He walked home in bare feet. I continued to change my socks every day when I got home.

Heavy rain demonstrates gravity better than most things. In the market, everyone has vinyl awnings over their stalls, but that means there are gaps between them. I can’t saunter as I usually would, but rather hop from one bit of cover to the next, hoping to dodge the streamlets of water fallin between awnings.

A straw sombrero helps, deflecting the rainwater away from my neck and shoulders; but nobody stays entirely dry in July and August, the months of the heaviest rainfall. Tropical rain is inescapable.

Then, it’s gone. Some time in October, or the end of November as it was last year, the downpours stop. There is no more ferocious lightning to cut the electrical power, the dogs don’t cower from repeated thunderclaps, and persistent puddles dry out. Teams of volunteers go out to fill in the potholes that inevitably form on the road to the village, the swarms of flies and mosquitoes diminish, and there’s a sense of relief.

By February the greenness has gone, and certain houses and landmarks that were masked by bushes and leafy trees have reappeared. By late April, the threat is no longer getting soaked, or losing food in the freezer from a long power outage: occasional forest fires begin in Chichinautzin, the nature reserve north and east of our village. Volunteers this time go out with rakes and brooms, while the rest of us chip in for bottled water for them to take into the hills as they beat down the flames.

To preach about water supply in a world where weather patterns are shifting is unproductive. The issue becomes real when it actually hits, not because of a headline. And long before we became aware how climate changes, water here was a concern. It can produce flooding, and its absence can produce famine. It’s always been an inescapable presence.

I had to experience its extremes – downpours and months of drought, as well as anxiously waiting for the water truck a couple of times – before I appreciated just how much we use, and how life is different when it’s in short supply.

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