Flames: Three Climate Vignettes
BY DANIEL SJOHOLM
The heat was inescapable. "It is hot" was not a temporary statement about the weather, but rather a simple fact of life. The heat arrived every March and subsided–barely–every November. This brief respite never seemed quite long enough for the worker to regain a normal sense of temperature. Qatari winters were more like mirages than winters. They tantalized him with the prospect of a cool, refreshing future, but that hope soon melted away beneath the blistering spring sun. Growing up in Pakistan, he was no stranger to brutal heat. Still, trapped in Qatar by his uncertain status as a migrant worker, this heat was an entirely unfamiliar beast. The ever-present danger it caused lurked in the back of the minds of him and his fellow workers. The worker never had enough water to rid himself of the oppressive heat—his overseers strictly controlled the amount of water the workers were able to drink each day, even when working on construction projects in 120, 125, 130°F heat.
Sometimes, the worker was assigned to construct air conditioning systems he would never be able to afford or use. He’d craft sprawling systems of tubes, vents, and ducts that would one day supply an endless stream of thick, cool air to rich Westerners who made their homes in the climate-controlled skyscrapers and luxury condos he could see from his tenement apartment. He could see but never step foot inside the wonders he helped create. The miles of tubing and the air they would carry mocked him with every rivet he turned into place.
Over the years, several men in his crew—some friends, others not, but all humans—had died from dehydration, just meters away from sources of water. By now, he could no longer even remember the names of his dead coworkers; he only had a vague sense that they existed, and, perhaps, that they mattered to somebody, somewhere.
Distilling one life into a box is just as difficult as it sounds; distilling a mother, two kids, and a cat’s lives into a single box is impossible. How much cat food should she pack? 2 boxes wasn’t enough, 3 seemed to be too many. Which family keepsakes should she include? And, why did starting to pack it feel like it would somehow bring the fires closer to her and her family?
She pondered over what to include for weeks on end, going over every item dozens of times in her mind before placing it neatly into the box. Laura was still not satisfied once it was filled to the brim. To her, a fireproof box felt like trying to outwit nature. If her possessions were fated to burn, who was she to stop that? After all, fires are nature’s healing.
But the increasing frequency of the fires jolted her out of complacency and forced her to accept that the box was, in fact, necessary. On those days, the sirens were deafening. Her street on the outskirts of Los Angeles would become a parade of emergency vehicles—firetrucks, police cars, ambulances—until she eventually began to tune out the incessant wailing of their sirens. But her cats and daughters never learned that skill. Every time the winds roared and fires came, they cowered, tucking themselves under blankets.
Laura had performed the same escape ritual three times in the last four years. When the newsmen on TV urged, she always knew what she had to do. She collected the kids, shooed the cats into carrier boxes, and grabbed the box she had carefully prepared for just this moment.
Every time Laura escaped from the fire, heading upstream against an endless rush of fire trucks, she felt as though she was defying nature. In effect, her and her family had become the box. Their house was certainly dangerously inviting to fires, being located only a few feet away from acres of brush.
When she ran, she was outwitting nature. Her escapes became narrower and narrower each time she fled, and Laura knew she was only delaying the inevitable. The fields of California are destined to burn, after all.
Jabu ate in the dark, as he did most every day. The government allotted only a few hours of electricity each day, and his family never knew when the lights would flicker on. So, Jabu cooked and ate and studied as well as he could in a house lit only by candles. He had little time to study regardless because his family needed water, and that was his responsibility. He was an only child, so, while his parents worked, Jabu was sent to wait in hours-long lines to collect a meager 6.6 gallons of water per day per family member. This allowed them each to shower for a minute, flush the toilet once, and, if they were especially frugal with their water use, wash vegetables for dinner.
Day Zero had come and gone several years ago in Cape Town. There was no longer enough water to supply the city's terrified residents with tap water. The spout on Jabu’s kitchen faucet was now home to a thriving family of spiders.
Day Zero meant that, in order for their families to drink, Cape Town's residents stood in line for hours under the watchful eye of armed guards. Still, people adapted, as humans do. Waiting in line was now part of Jabu's day.
Jabu could scarcely remember a time without wars—personal and political —over water. He had come to resent even the idea of water. When he drank, he did so quickly and ruefully, as if personally offended by the drops rolling down his throat. Water had washed away his dreams of studying at university, leaving the small house he grew up in. Water was not his friend.
To the South Africans like Jabu who never had enough, water was more of a concept than a reality. Water was the source of their anger, their despondence, and, very rarely, their joy. They couldn’t live without it. Water was eternal, ever present in the fronts and backs of their minds, but never there when they needed it most.