A cautionary tale about rationing water in a drought

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

The temperature lodged in the 90s and dropped only about 10 degrees after dark.

Humidity was for all intents and purposes nonexistent.

This rugged landscape knew drought better than rain.

And locals barely lifted their eyes to trace the steady circle of aircraft dipping water and spreading it across the smoldering earth.

No, not California in 2007, but Sardinia in 2003, a pile of rock in the Mediterranean Sea west of the Italian peninsula. We had spent a few days in Girasole on the east coast of this island and were now heading to the west. This meant some serious mountain roads, the highest more than 6,000 feet above sea level, and stunning views, especially as we neared the coast.

As a point of reference, Sardinia covers 9,300 square miles, comparable to the area of New Hampshire. I don’t believe there is a horizontal surface on the entire island.

Mary had reserved a flat for us in a three-story villa perched on a cliff high above the sea. A winding rocky path took us from our digs down past the patios of other guests, through a rock garden to an open-air shower from which the path continues its rocky way down to the surging waves. The “beach” was likewise rocky. To let the waves wash over our legs meant finding a more-or-less stable rock large enough to sit on (sneakers or sandals recommended).

If I’ve overused the word “rock” and “rocky,” it can’t be helped. That’s the only word that applies.

As we approached our villa, we noticed smoke on the horizon to the south and helicopter and fixed wing aircraft shuttling water from the sea to the smoke. Hardly anyone except us tourists gave them a second look, and we sat on our balcony by the hour, watching them dip and scoop and stagger back into the air to drag their loads of water to the fires.

Wildfires are commonplace in Sardinia.

We moved into our rustic apartment, trying hard to be good sports about the fact that it had no air conditioning save the breezes from the sea. We had brought along a rather small oscillating fan which we placed in the hallway thinking to encourage the flow of air into our three bedrooms. Ah, that’s all right, we think. The fan and a nice cool shower before bedtime will make us comfortable.

“Hey! What happened to the water?” I don’t remember who was the first to discover that at a certain time in the evening, the water is shut off.


To conserve precious water on this pile of steaming rocks, there is no water after 7 or 8 p.m.

That first night was the worst, of course. We couldn’t believe it was happening, and that no one told us to expect it. On the following evenings, we made sure we had our showers early or filled basins and buckets and pots and pans with water.

Our favorite practice was to fill plastic water bottles and stack them in the freezer. They went with us on our sightseeing excursions, but seldom lasted for more than half a day. Life on Sardinia is a thirsty business.

Then I thought of how to beat the evening dilemma. Remember that shower along the rocky path to the bluff above the water’s edge? I put on an ancient swimsuit, gathered soap and towels, and headed down the path.

Our neighbors below were hosting a rather raucous party, in Italian, on their patio. I figured if I were discreet and stayed outside the circle of their light, they probably would not notice me. Of course, that meant negotiating the rocky pathway in the dark.

About three steps down from our patio, one foot found a loose rock and I pitched headfirst across the path. Silently, I inventoried all my parts and concluded that none was badly injured.

But I couldn’t get up. Somehow I was wedged, half on one side and with one arm pinned under my body, in the rock-sided steps about 10 feet below our patio wall.

Just low enough that no one in our group heard me call for help. “Dave!” I tried, sotto voce. He couldn’t hear me, but the voices below seemed to have hushed slightly. “DAVE!” I tried again. “MARY! I can’t get up. Help me!”

By now it was silent on the next two patios and when I twisted my head to look below, I saw a dozen faces looking back at me, asking me something in Italian. To which I, of course, replied with a hearty laugh, “No, no, I’m fine. No problem.”

I was mortified and the last thing I wanted was a bunch of slightly sauced vacationers picking me up and finding blood or – worse – a tear in my worn-out swimsuit.

The funny thing is that they took me at my word and shrugged back to their vino, leaving me crying pitifully for my husband.

I don’t know how he finally heard me, but he did, and had the good sense not to laugh when he saw my predicament. He hauled me to my feet and back to our flat, where I appeared to be none the worse for wear.

I’m not sure who went down to check it out, but if I’d made it to the shower, it would have been for naught.

The shower was dry too.

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