Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Living in a Natural Disaster Area

When I was young, droughts were something that happened elsewhere: as a punishment from God in the Bible, or in far off Africa, where unfortunate babies with distended bellies would die in the scorching heat of an evil sun. In Scotland, by contrast, there was never a shortage of rain - quite the opposite, in fact: We hardly ever saw the sun, and might have thought its existence a mere rumor were it not for those people who came back from holidays in Spain burnt red, toy donkeys under their arms. 

Flash forward a few decades and suddenly I find myself living in Texas where droughts are a regular occurrence. Currently we are enduring our ninth month of epic dryness, my second drought in five years, which - depending on which website I consult - is either the worst or third worst in the history of the state.

Of course since I live in a modern house with air conditioning, there is something surreal about this “drought.” I turn on the tap and water still gushes forth. The shelves in the supermarket still groan under the weight of lush red apples, ripe green lettuces, juicy red meat - all fed with copious amounts of water. There are no babies with distended bellies dying in the dust. I am, in other words, a typical Western man: protected from the extremes of nature by ingenious technology and excellent infrastructure.

And yet, even as I throw six or seven ice cubes into a refreshing glass of Coke I read that I am living in a natural disaster area, for thus has all of Texas been designated by the federal government. And I suppose that when I step outside I can see the harmful effects of life without rain. My lawn looks terrible, yellow and parched, even though I water it once a week because I am contractually obliged to do so. Then when I am driving I see dried up river beds, and baked-mud islands emerging from lakes that have lost 48% of their water. This year they even canceled the 4th July firework display in Austin, lest a stray firecracker transformed the city into a raging inferno.

If I were a farmer, I would be much more aware of the drought, as it is killing livestock, destroying crops and bankrupting families. Hunters are sad because the beasts they like to kill are dying off in large numbers before they can shoot them. Even skunks are suffering - rabies rates have doubled in the population of this already unpopular animal… all thanks to the drought apparently. 

Meanwhile, as the heavens refuse to open their floodgates, we owners of laptops and MP3 players find ourselves in exactly the same predicament as our cave dwelling ancestors from millennia ago, entirely powerless to affect the weather. In the past, people would pray, dance, sacrifice a chicken, maybe shake a stick at the sky in the hope that it would provoke rainfall… and that’s as much as anyone can do nowadays.

Eventually rain will come, of course. Until then my house remains a cool refuge from the punishing heat. At the back of my mind though I do worry about the subterranean aquifers upon which we rely for our water. Long before I lived here I saw a documentary in which a former Texas oilman bragged that he had switched his business to water because it was a resource that was only going to get scarcer and more valuable in the future. Wars would be fought over water, he said, and great fortunes would be made.

I like to think that I won’t ever be obliged to shoot my neighbor for a bucket of water, but as Texas’ population continues to explode I can’t shake the feeling that the growth is unsustainable. How long will we be able to defy nature? Will Texas one day be as sparsely populated as it was before the invention of the modern air conditioning unit in 1902? At what point will only a few hardy frontier types remain, surrendering the crumbling ghost cities to lizards and armadillos?

Who knows? Meanwhile I continue to think about my lawn. The truth is, I shouldn’t have one at all. The front of my house should be a rocky landscape of cacti, scrub and wiry trees because those are the plants that thrive in this landscape. But according to the rules of the home owners association such gardens are banned, to perpetuate the mirage that we are living in a perfect suburb, a dream landscape of ideal urban living.

Thus are precious resources wasted on an illusion; but even if the dying grass in front of my house looks awful, at least it provides me with a potent symbol for the fragility of civilization in the South Western United States.