Ida lives in the brick veneer unit next door to my grandmother. She used to befuddle us all with her strangely frugal behaviour. While Nana pummelled at her dirty dishes under a plentiful stream of hot running water, Ida would purposefully restrict her usage to a sad trickle, scrubbing her dishes in a tiny round bowl parked underneath her kitchen tap. She’d fill the bucket with no more than a puddle and have just enough to complete the job— then tip the murky water over flower pots that lined her three metre balcony. We all thought Ida was mad. Why on earth was she bothering to conserve such an insignificant amount of water? There was plenty of water in the tap and her ritual seemed non-sensical.
Fifteen years on, it turns out that Ida’s behaviour probably wasn’t as outlandish as we all thought. Perhaps she saw it all coming. More appropriately, she’d probably seen it all before.
In Ida’s day very little was taken for granted. Growing up as a teenager in the 1930’s her family would have experienced the major economic downturn that resulted in mass unemployment and widespread poverty for millions of Australians. Families like hers often struggled to cobble together enough food to feed the hungry stomachs and clothe their cold bodies. Conservation of the most basic resources was a daily occurrence and only what was truly necessary was used. The depression eventually ended, but Ida took from it the memory of profound hardship. She recognised the virtues of using only what was absolutely necessary, never forgetting how precious the most basic of resources were to her family’s livelihood.
While the sun is still buried below the horizon, I wake and throw my body under an invigorating burst of hot water. Three minutes tick by and I crave an extra lashing. Just a few months ago I would barely have blinked an eye if I lingered for another ten or so minutes. After scoffing down some breakfast I brush the toast crumbs off the plate—perhaps just a trickle of water if needed. I turn the knob on the washing machine and let it do its thing, same story with the dishwasher, but now the act of filtering litres upon litres of water through my whitegoods perturbs me. I imagine a day when a set of clean clothes and a polished array of plates and mugs can no longer be instantaneous.
I chat to my old lady on the phone. She’d just finished watering her potplants with cloudy shampooed shower water collected in her bathtub—her new daily ritual. The back hose sits in a pile near the shed, neglected and redundant as a result of the restrictions. She’s given up on the dishwasher. On my way to work I pass the once lush, thick green hill at the foot of the State Library. Patchy, brown and lifeless, it drives home the point. The water is running out, and our thinking and actions are changing.
It was economic depression that forced Ida and millions like her to transform their lives and conserve what little they had. Just as Wall Street collapsed, our natural resources are collapsing. A perilous lack of water and environmental hardship now forces us to change the way we think about using it. Though macro solutions are essential, change begins at the grassroots. Ida set the tone way forward for all of us. We’re all mad if we don’t follow her lead.