Photo by  danist soh

Photo by danist soh

Living in the desert, I keep a water bottle by the bed and sip it through the night so I can sleep. I drink cultured milk for breakfast and think of the Mongolian nomads who keep a sack of kefir cool near the entrance of the yurt. The Aboriginal community near where I live now has a swimming pool. Even after the money was raised, it took about a decade of negotiations to build it. Their land is now a National Park, so the people were not allowed to draw water from the basin beneath. Instead, they had to pay trucks to bring water (drawn from the same underground basin) from outside the Park.
Meanwhile, not far from here — in country miles — the mining companies draw tens of millions of litres of water daily from that ancient reservoir. The Great Artesian Bore is not replenished by groundwater. It is a freshwater ocean, seeped from rocks in the Earth’s core. It is probably the same water that steams from deep-sea vents and powers from volcanoes. The mineworkers pour it away on the dust. They keep doing it long after the need for metals is satisfied.
In one of my previous desert houses I had the luxury of a bath to soak the dust out of my pores.
But the bathroom floor flooded with grey water every time you let the plug out. The drainage pipes didn’t have the capacity for a bath a third full. I tried to assure myself that it was only grey water from my bath as I stepped around the flood in a race against the climbing water. There were never visible faeces in it, but there was the occasional oyster of mucous I didn’t recognise.
Lack of drainage can drain you. The big industrial places — where the mines are, where the tourists go — have adequate plumbing. But plumbing in remote Australian communities is an important health issue. The red earth is hard baked. Many places have pipes dug too shallowly. Sewage overflows when a house with one toilet, thus built, comes to accommodate ten or twenty people.
There are reasons why people choose to live in remote Aboriginal communities and those reasons are not respected enough. The continuity of belonging to a place, the task of maintaining the world’s longest continuous culture, respite from the cities and towns — these reasons might seem quixotic outside Aboriginal communities. When people have to step across flooded sewage (despite their council’s best efforts), they feel that lack of respect acutely.
Of course, you don’t have to be Indigenous to endure poor housing in Australia. Decades ago, I lived in one of a multicultural row of old terrace houses. Its bathroom floor rotted and gave way underfoot, revealing decayed joists and rare inner-city earth beneath. The old bath was strong and deep, so we moved it to the concrete backyard and filled it with cool water from a garden hose. Freedom is seeing the stars on a summer’s night while your hair floats in the water.
Out in the desert near where I live now, the kids swim in the water tanks when they can. The tanks are deep, cool and dangerous. Probably safer, though, than breaking into the sewage ponds where the birds swim contently but grey pus results in streams from human ears.
Some things have gotten better. We draw heat from the sun for hot water here now, even in the most rudimentary homes. For my bath, I have a bag of soap nuts foaming under the tap in a little hemp bag. Their saponins cleanse and heal my skin. My ritual helps sustain a family cultivating soap nut trees in Himachal Pradesh. And I can step onto a dry bathroom floor, thanks to the assiduous work of a handful of excellent plumbers who digged and measured. Nowadays, we catch our grey water and use it on the garden. There’s a little eucalypt, growing from the root of a majestic dead one, that shivers its red-tipped leaves when I water it.