On New Year’s Day 2007, Melbourne’s water supply was turned off. It wasn’t quite as bad as that, of course, but it felt like it: the fountains stopped flowing, water restrictions were tightened, and almost immediately the city turned brown. Water still came gushing out of the tap just as it always had done, but a psychological weight fell over the entire city, and suddenly the most urgent civic conversations among the residents of Melbourne were about grey water, and water pipelines, desalination plants. Signs started appearing everywhere – on garden fences, on the sides of council-employed street-cleaning vehicles – proclaiming that recycled water was being used, and as Melbourne waited for rain the city’s broadsheet daily, the Age, recorded on the front page every day the steadily dropping levels of the reservoirs that keep four million people alive: less than thirty-five percent full; less than thirty percent full; less than twenty-five percent full.
The drought had come abruptly to Melbourne, and late: by the time the tough Stage 3 water restrictions were finally introduced here, most of the country had been suffering for four years under the most severe drought in a century. It was immediately obvious if you travelled outside the city: if you flew interstate the land below was so dry it looked dead; if you went for a drive into the countryside you’d see that even the Eucalypts, trees that specialise in thriving in the often brutal Australian environment, were dying.
Drought is not like other natural disasters. It’s not a sudden catastrophe but a slow, grinding weariness; a steadily accumulating despair. Hope is not extinguished overnight in a drought but is gradually crushed, one cloudless day at a time, one rainless electrical storm at a time. When I moved from Canberra to Melbourne in the middle of 2004 Canberra had been under drought for some time, and the city I’d grown up in no longer existed: Canberra has always been a particularly green city, heavily planted with both native and exotic trees, but by the autumn of 2004 the trees were brown, and the grass was yellow, and the city seemed exhausted. If the city hadn’t been so desperately dry it might have been harder for me to leave, but as it was I barely recognised the place any more, and seeing the city die was almost more than I could bear.
Canberra is a small city, though, and because bushland and parkland are an integral part of its design Canberrans have an unusually close connection to the environment. In a city like Melbourne, by contrast, the severity of a drought can be easy to miss – and it was particularly easy for me to miss seven years ago, new to Melbourne and unfamiliar with the particularities of its climate. Canberra and Melbourne may appear relatively close on a map of Australia, but to drive from one to the other takes about seven hours, and Melbourne is low-lying and coastal, while Canberra is inland and in the hills. Something that Canberra and Melbourne have in common is the distinctness of their four season – not always a given in Australia – but those seasons are not alike. Spring, in particular, differs markedly between the two cities: in Canberra it’s a time of gentle warmth and clear skies; in Melbourne it’s a time of rain, with October – the last month of spring in the southern hemisphere – having the most rainfall of any month.
When I moved to Melbourne, though, the springs were not like that. They were much closer to the Canberra springs I was accustomed do: dry and warm and comfortable. It took me some time to realise that in Melbourne this was not something to celebrate, but rather was an indication of something severely wrong with the weather. I think the first time I really understood that Melbourne was in drought was a few years ago – I can’t remember the exact year, it was probably around 2008 – when summer seemed to last for five months. For week after week in what should have been autumn the weather was stable: clear, and dry, and warm. Parched. In a city whose weather is famously changeable, with precipitous drops in temperature and sudden onrushes of rain common as weather systems from the north and from the south push against each-other, the stability and uniformity of that long period of sunshine was deeply troubling.
When water restrictions were finally introduced in Melbourne, it didn’t take long for people to start getting on edge. In March 2007 a man had his water supply cut off, reduced to a trickle for forty-eight hours, after a neighbour reported that he was breaching water restrictions. When one man argued with and killed another while water restrictions were in place, initial reports suggested that the argument had been about water use. As the water levels in the city’s reservoirs got lower and lower, I started to think of leaving Melbourne if rain didn’t come soon.
When the rain came, it came hard. In retrospect that shouldn’t have surprised anyone: the Australian environment is not gentle. When the drought finally began to break late last year the rain fell, and fell, and fell. Meanwhile I moved house, and I found myself living near Merri Creek, and after the spring and summer rains I’d often walk down to the creek and see it in flood: on several occasions stretches of the bike path that skirts along the creek became submerged. One time I went down to Yarra Bend, where Merri Creek flows into the Yarra River, to see that Dight’s Falls, a row of low rocks and cascades at, was completely lost under the torrent.
Some time in spring, during a downpour, I opened the French windows in my sitting room and sat at my dining-table and listened to the rain. It wasn’t too cold and having recently started living by myself I was enjoying the silence in the house, and Melbourne was only just starting to become aware that the drought may be breaking so the sound of rain was still novel. As the water pattered down I noticed another sound, nestled in between the raindrops, coming from just over the fence, outside my neighbour’s house. It was a sound I hadn’t heard for a long time – and yet it was a sound I recognised instantly. It was the sound of a frog calling. The Southern Brown Tree Frog, specifically, a species found across the southern coast of Victoria, all through Tasmania, and in the far south coast of New South Wales and the eastern edge of South Australia’s coastline. Hearing its call made me indescribably happy, and the call rang out every time the rain fell subsequently – and only when the rain fell.
As the spring of 2010 grew into summer, what turned out to be a very wet and mild summer, it quickly became apparent – first in excited comments between people chatting in cafés and bars and shops, then increasingly through more official channels in the news media – that the drought had broken. Rain fell, and frogs sang, and though news soon turned to stories of heartbreak and loss as huge areas of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria were beset by catastrophic floods, it was difficult not to feel some measure of joy, an overwhelming sense of relief. Melbourne’s reservoirs are now over fifty percent full, and the reservoirs of many other towns and cities around the country are overflowing, and after seven years the drought, at last, is over.
Image sourced from http://www.knox.vic.gov.au/