A black and white photograph of a naked bottom submerged in water
Rebecca Salsbury Strand (1922) by Alfred Stieglitz. Original from The Art Institute of Chicago. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Breaking Waters

By Ana Santi

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There is a body of freshwater in Fraser Island, off the coast of eastern Australia, that, unless you see it, you’d think was the work of Instagram filters. Lake McKenzie is incredible. But it’s real; I’ve been there. And it remains, 20 years later, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. Emerging from the surrounding forest, blinking at the fine, snow-white sand, my friends and I cooled off in the lake’s clear water, tinged with aqua blue. Perched 100 metres above sea level, it only contains rainwater, making it one of the purest freshwater lakes in the world. We took sips from its five-metre deep bowl. It tasted like tap water, with a hint of sunscreen.

Photographs from a scrap book a friends swimming in Fraser Island freshwater body.
Ana and her friends visiting Fraser Island.

We were asked to wear hats and T-shirts, rather than apply suntan lotion – the only pollutant threat to this World Heritage site. But we were 21. We wanted to tan and take a good photo. And we’d only apply it to our shoulders, chest and face. How much damage could that really do? When no one was watching, I covered my body with the oily balm.

Some 17 years later in 2018, Autumn Peltier, the Chief Water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation in Ontario, Canada (who wasn’t born when I swam in Lake McKenzie), addressed world leaders at the UN General Assembly on the issues of protecting freshwater. She was 13. She is not yet 21. Every word she said in that four-minute speech mattered, but these stuck with me:

We are born of water and live in water for nine months. When the waters break, new life comes. But even deeper than that, we come from our mother’s waters, and her mother’s waters, and so on.
Autumn Peltier

When I was pregnant, water was the only remedy for discomfort and, later, painful contractions. I swam every week, finding solace in feeling weightless. At 3 am on the morning I would give birth, I ran myself a bath to ease the pain. Within minutes, my waters broke. Arriving at the hospital, I was warned that the birthing pool may not be filled in time for me to deliver my baby and that I should consider the bed instead. I refused, scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it any other way but in water. So I heaved myself up from the chair and knelt in the pool, only an inch full at that stage. About two hours later, my daughter was born, and swam into my husband’s arms.

I will be forever grateful for what was, by all accounts, a relatively easy experience, and one I was able to choose. I’ve never gone without water; not only has it always flowed freely from the tap, but it was also there to ease the birth of my daughter.

Between 50% and 60% of our bodies are made up of water. In her speech, Autumn went on to say that “everything is connected to the issue of clean water […]; that we are all connected”.

That connection means that every action we take has impact. Water has always mattered to me – fresh, salt, chlorinated. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never forgotten my trip to Lake McKenzie. I’d like to think that my unforgettable mistake has helped to steer my subsequent actions – or inactions; what we don’t do also matters. It’s never too early to protect our natural resources. It’s also not too late to start.

 

Ana Santi is a journalist and writer. Her non-fiction debut, Three Things to Help Heal the Planet, was published this year.

 

Read more about the importance of freshwater and how to protect it:

WWF: Our rivers and lakes are vital for people and wildlife
The Nature Conservancy: Freshwater ecosystems are some of the most threatened on Earth—here’s how we change that

 

Do you have a personal story about water that you would like to share? Let us know in the comment section below – or purchase a fine art print, with proceeds going towards grassroots organisations working to preserve and protect this precious resource.