Pray for rain!

Many countries in Europe – and especially the UK – might be having the wettest summer on record, but here in Istria it’s the opposite story. With soaring temperatures and hardly a drop of rain all year, water rationing’s started and it’s hitting everyone hard. And with everywhere tinder-dry, forest fires are making things even more worrying.


Where has all the water gone?

Dried out field in IstriaI opened my shutters this morning to yet another damn, blue sky, without a cloud in sight. I don’t want to sound churlish, but this hot, sunny weather has long-since lost its charm. ‘Please, oh please, let it rain!’ A decent thunderstorm, a good solid downpour, even a reasonable shower – any rain would do. This isn’t the whinge of a jaded, over-heated gardener: Istria’s water situation – or to phrase it better, it’s lack of water situation – has tipped from simply worrying to very serious. 

With mountains at its back, good reservoirs and a limited population, water rationing is virtually unheard of in Istria. But a searing, dry summer on the back of two rain-free winters is straining even Istria’s usually plentiful supply.

Back in May we knew that, if we didn’t have some serious rain, we were in for some form of water rationing. No rain came. First the grass verges and fields dried up. Then, in the last week of July, the first touch of drought-induced autumn touched the forests. Now, a few weeks later, it’s well advanced and everywhere’s tinder-dry.


Water rationing

Last Saturday rationing finally started – all outside use of water had to stop. No car or terrace washing and no irrigation – not even for agriculture! Greenhouses though are exempt, perhaps because they form the bulk of Istria’s professional food production. (Most other agriculture is vineyards and olive groves which aren’t irrigated: the rest is mainly small-holdings producing food for personal use and local restaurants.)

Whatever the reason, I guess something had to be cut and, with tourism being the major earner, it was given priority, which means small local farmsteads are being cut off while, for now, swimming pools can be filled and kept running (it’s a funny old world!).

I knew this was coming and was prepared for it … intellectually. With soaring tourist numbers and reserves dwindling, something had to be done. To be honest, I was surprised they had delayed action so long. But it was the lack of a phased response which irritated me: couldn’t we have had a ban on car and terrace washing for a few weeks, before a ban on everything? P suggests it was done this way to prevent a watering splurge as people realised the axe was about to fall.

So how seriously is everyone taking this? A few phone calls and I realised, very seriously! With its usual delicate touch, the Local Government’s ruling is that anyone caught flouting the law will have all their water cut off for a month and face a large, yet to be decided, fine. With this draconian punishment as a threat and examples of blatant offenders being disconnected on the news, everyone has quickly fallen in line. No-one can afford to be totally without water and we all know it’s for a good cause.


What to do …

I have a home and two rental properties, all using garden irrigation. So how is this affecting us?


… in Brnobici

In our occupied, rental house in Brnobici, the decision was easy: the irrigation had to be switched off. Better the recently replanted garden died than our guests were left with no water. As soon as we heard the ruling, we drove up to the house: I turned off the tap with a sinking heart and bade the garden farewell – it was looking glorious. Hopefully, the well-established olive tree and small conifers ought to survive, but I’m not too sure about the plants in pots or those I only planted this Spring.


… Kovaci …

Next up was Kovaci, seemingly a far harder decision as we’ve no guests there to be affected. But with watching neighbours who do have guests and clearly aren’t irrigating, we would have felt really uncomfortable if we’d tried to flout the ban – even if we wanted to.

Kovaci in Istria, the gardenSo off went the water. Knowing the lawn would soon go brown, while we were there we took out all the garden furniture for photography – something we had been waiting to do until the newly-created garden looked at its best.

Sowing a lawn in high summer is never a good idea and this year I had wondered if it verged on insanity. But, if we’re to rent the house next year, we need some good photos of the garden as soon as possible and that meant we needed green grass. Despite a few bald patches, most of the lawn was now well established, so we dressed the garden and snapped away. It looked lovely – it was heart breaking to think it wouldn’t last.

I couldn’t bear losing everything I’d only recently planted, so went round digging out the main climbers (passion flower and honeysuckle). These came home with me for a little hand watering on the terrace (using waste water). The rest will have to fend for themselves. I wonder if any will be alive by the end of the summer?


… and at home?

At home the decision was even harder to make. At least with the other houses, out of sight was out of mind.

What my garden used to look like, in IstriaI never set out to create an English country garden in the middle of Istria – it just happened. I wanted a garden full of colour and butterflies and, with the help of a hardworking irrigation system, that’s what I achieved. With next to no rain all year, the system’s been hard at work since April and, while our water bills have been astronomic, my garden looked a picture – I know because everyone told me so. Now I had to turn the tap off.

Switching off the lawn sprinklers was easy. While the grass will rapidly die off, I know it’ll bounce back once some rain comes (please let it come soon). Turning off the drip-lines to all the flowerbeds was far harder. How long would they last without regular liquid refreshment? I vacillated between optimism and despair. ‘Most of the shrubs will be fine,’ I’d tell myself, ‘they’re well-established… I can always replant, if something dies,’ But when I was tired, worn down by the incessant heat, my optimism would falter: I’d sink into depression, all the time berating myself for caring so much about a garden when there were people around me losing their livelihoods. I tell myself, it’s just human nature – I can’t do anything for them, but I have no choice but to watch plants I’ve tended and nurtured over seven years, struggle, wilt and possibly die.

Therapeutic and relaxing, gardening’s my version of meditation. While it doesn’t solve problems, it helps me keep things in perspective. With my refuge turning into my worry, I’ve nowhere to go to come to terms with this latest set-back.


Water saving

That first night, I didn’t sleep well. Images of a drought-ridden garden chased round and round my head – all totally illogical: the irrigation had only just gone off and the ground should hold enough for water for … how long? That was definitely the question.

But the night also brought an inspiration: ‘why don’t we save our household water and use it for the garden?’ I felt a total dork for not thinking of it immediately. It’s what I grew up with and what my parents do, whenever they have a watering ban.

While bowls and buckets will only provide a drop in an ocean of need (pun intended), they might be enough to save key plants. And what was good for my garden, ought to be even more effective in the far smaller garden in Brnobici. I drafted a begging letter for my guests and headed into town to buy a supply of buckets and bowls.

It felt a terrible imposition, asking guests to work on their holiday – but what other choice did I have? Driving up, I prayed they’d be around so I could ask them personally and not simply deposit a water-saving kit on the doorstep. But no-one was home so, with fingers crossed for their understanding, I delivered buckets, bowls and instructions. At least, I thought, they ought to be made aware of the severe shortage, so they didn’t waste water unnecessarily.

The other water source we have is our swimming pool. With Istria so dependent on tourism, we’re allowed to fill and maintain our pool – for now. Cleaning involves backwashing, which generates litres of waste-water. With the water simply pumped out into the bottom of the garden, I’ve always felt guilty about the wastage. Perhaps there was some way to catch this water and feed it into the drip-lines?

A few phone calls and a solution seemed possible. We could buy a water cube with a 1m³ capacity and connect it into the drip-line with a pump. After a cross-country drive to find one of the last available cubes in Istria, we manoeuvred it into place and started the backwash. The water gushed into the cube and rapidly filled … a half of it – good, but I’d hoped for more. It was only enough for 15 minutes of drip-line, but the system worked and surely 15 minutes, once a week, is better than nothing?!


Istria burns

Smoke from the fire towering over our house in IstriaAs we fiddled with our improvised watering system, we watched planes carrying seawater overhead. What we feared most was happening – a forest fire. With everywhere so dry, it was only a matter of time. I’d seen a small blaze on the plains below Brnobici, yesterday. Today, there was a fire that was much, much closer. As huge clouds of black smoke piled up into the sky above us,  the village emptied onto the top field to assess the danger. It wasn’t as close as we’d feared. At least 2 km away: someone else’s village was burning, not ours! We all took a collective sigh of relief, giving thanks for it not being us and retreated home with anxious, watchful eyes on the ever-growing cloud. I felt awful for those caught up in the blaze, but what else could we do, but watch and pray?

High winds fanned the flames and all afternoon, for nearly 8 hours, the seaplanes flew back and forth over the house, dumping water onto the fire as they chased it across the country. It turned towards us (scary moment) and then away (relief). Finally, at 8 pm, when we sat down to dinner, we realised we couldn’t hear a plane or see any smoke – the battle was won. But how many more will there be across Istria this hot, dry summer?


How are we surviving?

Our irrigation systems have now been off for a week and, amazingly, our garden’s holding up well. I’ve harvested what tomatoes I can – the rest will have to fend for themselves. The lawn’s definitely browning and the buddleia and hydrangeas are drooping, but I go out every morning with buckets of shower and washing water to succour the worst affected.

Badly drooping dogwood in my Istrian gardenSaving every drop I can, I’m now much more conscious of how much water gets used in a home every day with simple, everyday tasks such as simply rinsing fingers, food and utensils. We now only flush the loo when necessary and no water goes down the drain.

Everyone is pitching in. My guests in the Little House are looking after the garden near them and I had a lovely e-mail this morning from my guests in Brnobici, who left today. They too have been playing their part and their kids have found it great fun! In fact, their 10-year old daughter has now declared she won’t ever have another shower, as it uses too much water!

Elsewhere, I see anxious faces and browning gardens – we all know how serious the situation is. If it doesn’t rain soon, restrictions will have to be tightened further. So please, even if you’re experiencing unseasonably wet weather, join everyone here in praying for rain. Baking Istria desperately needs a drink!


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