Thursday, October 8, 2015

Streams in the (Rainforest) Desert

This is what our hills should look like.
It rained briefly today. After months of drought, this tropical island is finally dripping again, diamonds falling off the pine tree needles. The world is rinsed, washing off the months of smoke and ash and dust from mountains charred black by villages, who hope water might want to condense on the rising smoke. Within moments, the hillsides are greening in excitement, but the gardens still wait. It’s not enough, this brief shower—it dampens the topsoil, but can’t heal the cracks that spiderweb across the earth, can’t soften the ground that traps the muna beetle from hatching.

Today, the clouds pile into our harbor, scraping their hulls on the mountaintops, and we hear their cargo tear loose in thunder and capsize upon us. Where do you come from, you treasure ships of the sky? How did you sail past the Pacific, cheating El Nino, who hordes our rains in his windstricken hands?

Drink eight glasses of water a day,
and so in our home countries we journey to our fridge or pop open a bottle (from crystal-sparkling springs in the Alps). But here, trustworthy water—water without typhoid or cholera—is gathered daily from ever-flowing springs or ever-pouring rain trickling into water tanks, metal drums, clay pots, tarps and cupped leaves. (Wells are too contaminated by the plethora of outhouses and roaming pigs.) Rules guard its cleanliness—upriver for drinking water, downstream for places to wash clothes, dishes, men, and women. Sanitation is the rush of water into the Pacific.
Here is a photo of the same hill now.

But here, in this 5-month drought—the last of this magnitude over 40 years ago—springs shrink to a trickle and no cloud-ships come and dock in this valley. Mamas walk further and further to fill their pots. Some become desperate and slosh their bottles full with stagnant, untrusted sources and hope for the best—for in the village there is no money for bleach, fancy bucket filtration, or those magic drops you buy at REI for your camping weekend.

Just boil your water, strain out the grime. Drink—and suddenly dry clouds mean more than just waterless. Precious gardens have withered in the heat or destroyed by the frost, and the greenlife has drained from seedlings supposed to provide the next harvest. Now breakfast, lunch, and dinner must be usually earned by selling surplus produce at the market or perhaps mowing lawns or landscaping houses (but dead grass and flowers don’t need tending). Schools close (money for fees goes to buy food). Jobs are let go. Prices rise. Water levels at the dam drop, and electricity flickers.

And so those of us who have an income (which means, a responsibility to employ others who don’t), struggle to help our friends in acceptable ways, buying their crafts and their chickens, finding extra jobs. Employment in this country is far more than a financial contract but an agreement for the employer to step deep into the lives of his or her employees, from education to marriages to grief to dying gardens. Together, we conserve every precious drop—cooking water into dishwater, dishwater into gardens. And together, we look up at the sky and pray.

I will make streams in the desert and waters in the wilderness. Oh Lord, even the deserts of a tropical rainforest?

Right now should be rainy season, which means heavy downpours almost daily. This is the same hillside pictured above, almost a year ago, after some heavy rains (at the fenceline, the height of the pouring water is above my head).
To read more about this incredible drought that is expected to last into next year, check out this article from the UNDP in Papua New Guinea and a video from Australian Broadcasting News.