What we have here is a water problem. It is one of the very first things we noticed on the drive in from the airport a little over a month ago. Our route took us past the entrance to the zoo, which resembled a savanna on the great plains of Africa. Parched.

At University College it was a common subject of conversation, triggered by news items such as the one about the residents of Toowoomba in Queensland, whose mayor attempted to persuade her constituents to drink up to 25% recycled water rather than watch their town’s reservoir go dry in a couple of years. The “yuck” factor triumphed, of course, and they voted for a dam instead.  [It is nice to have informed readers.  I stand corrected with regard to the citizens of Toowoomba; please see the comment below]

Australia is into its fifth year of a drought. Geography and meterology make this continent susceptible to long-term dry spells, but global warming is undoubtedly exacerbating the problem. The country hit a record high in November of last year, sending the yearly average 2.11 degrees Celsius above the norm. The result has been misery for many farmers, wildfires in the mountains, and serious discussion about water rights in the Murry-Darling river basin. Prime Minister Howard convened an emergency summit to discuss the problem, putting forth the proposition that the river was too important to be left to the States to control.

The same prime minister who, until relatively recently, stood shoulder to shoulder with Bush on global warming as well as Iraq. Australians are almost as profligate with energy as Americans, but they are beginning to be concerned about water. There are local celebrities who pride themselves on taking their showers straddling buckets, then using the water on the garden. Some rural golf courses are in desperate straits. Fortunately, there is a fund for disaster relief which includes gold courses.

For someone who considers himself a conservationist, this scarcity is troubling. It was a key consideration in my purchase of a washing machine, which can onlybe called an investment. The brand new, very expensive, front loading German machine uses only 63 litres of water for a full load. If the salesman is credible, I was using ten times that amount with our old Maytag.

We are well into a Stage 3 alert, possibly on our way to Stage 4. That means: no watering of lawns at any time. Gardens can only be watered by hand or a dripper system two days a week, two hours in the morning and two at night. Cars cannot be washed at home except to clean windows and remove corrosive substances. Commercial car washes are still allowed. No filling of new pools. Melbourne is contemplating a desalinization plant in the not too distant future.

Whoa, what’s that I hear– thunder?