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BLOG POST | Drought now, worry forever? On the stubborn persistence of eco-anxiety

The drought currently ravaging Europe is being felt more acutely as new lows keep being reached and surface water sources fail to be replenished. Eco-anxiety resulting from difficulty making sense of shifting weather patterns and changing water availability is linked to a transformation of the self based on the erosion of a sense of water security that occurs in the blink of an eye.


Dutch news sources on Thursday morning reported that the Rhine reached its lowest level ever recorded at Lobith, the place where the river enters the Netherlands.

The water level dropped at Lobith to 6,48 metres above Normaal Amsterdams Peil (NAP – Normal Amsterdam Level), an indicator used to measure elevation above the country's 'ground level'. In comparison, at the height of the 2018 drought that ravaged the country, the water level at Lobith was 6,49 metres above NAP at its lowest.

It is clear that this drought is serious, affecting numerous countries sharing river systems, including Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, where the rivers enter the sea. This year's drought is being likened to that of 2018, but in reality it might be far worse.

As records are broken again and again, and the drought intensifies, I keep asking myself, 'How much worse can it get?' There must be some point at which it will start raining and at which we can breathe a sigh of relief. It must be over. Yet, as we wait with bated breaths, the skies stay blue and the sun beats down mercilessly.

I've witnessed this before, back in 2018. Cape Town, a city at the southernmost tip of Africa that's home to more than 4 million people, was hit by the worst water crisis on record. The levels of dams supplying the city dropped so low that the city's administration announced that the city's entire water supply system would likely be switched off. This was called Day Zero. Cape Town would become the first city in the world whose water would run out in its entirety.

I was in the city, visiting my parents, in February 2018, some two months before Day Zero was expected to occur. At that point, each resident was allowed to use a mere 50 litres of water a day. This severe restriction on water use – and adequate rainfall during the winter season that followed – ensured that Day Zero was postponed and ultimately never reached.

The feeling that I get when reading about - and witnessing - the drought in the Netherlands and beyond, is similar to the one that I had back then, in the months preceding Day Zero. Constant anxiety. Sleepless nights. The worry that the water will run out, that one day, as happened in Cape Town, we will realise that there is not enough water left, that everything will not be OK, that we will not be able to manage it. That life has changed irreparably, finally, and that things will never go back to the way they were.

That is what happened in Cape Town. Even though it started raining again and the dams eventually overflowed, the feeling of an acute threat to life as we know it in the form of the absence of water - an uncontrolled absence of water for an unknown duration - created long-term psychological effects for many of the residents who lived through the crisis. An anxiety that has not disappeared and is unlikely to disappear.

Because once you realise that something that formed part of your daily life may be gone, possibly forever, and that this will change everything you thought you knew about yourself and your life, something shifts in your mind. You are no longer the same person you were a minute before.

Constant worry when heatwave follows heatwave and the rain, which not so long ago poured down day after day in the summer, stays away. Worrying that water will run out, even when the chance is not high. Having this same anxiety year after year, summer after summer, as summers get drier. This can be called eco-anxiety refers to a feeling of impending doom linked to fear of the collapse of life systems in their totality. When it comes to droughts such as the one we're currently facing, it is the gradual change in summers as we know them that contributes to the feeling that something has gone very wrong. It is in light of increasing uncertainty about changes in weather patterns that eco-anxiety arises.

You keep asking (without getting an answer): 'Is the change in the weather an anomaly, or is this how dry summers will be from now on?'

Things that have been taken for granted, such as that it will rain sufficiently in the winter months, are called into question. Cape Town's water crisis emerged because the winter rains didn't fall and the city's water reserves could not be replenished. What if the same thing happens here? What if? What if? What if? Confidence in experts, systems, natural cycles, is eroded when crises seem to threaten human existence - and it may never be restored.

And it's not only in our minds. Droughts are particularly difficult to understand and, therefore, to navigate, especially in urban contexts, where the threat on livelihoods and lifestyles is not acute.

The thing about droughts is that they drag on and on, taking years to develop and years to cease. They are creeping disasters, largely invisible until it's almost too late, and difficult to understand because as long as water keeps on flowing, there's no immediate threat.


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