When you're sharing a house with 12 whānau, it pays to get to the bathroom first.
That's what Michelle Tito-Brown reckons, as she grapples with Kaikohe's level 4 water restrictions at her place, where she lives with her husband, their nine children aged 11 to 22, and their 16-month-old mokopuna.
Like many residents and businesses in the Far North, Tito-Brown is doing her best to conserve water amid increasingly harsh conditions that look set to continue.
One bath is shared among five children, the bathwater is tossed over the plants, and they're using water from the washing machine to flush the toilet.
Because the tap water recently started running a bit brown, they're boiling it first, and drinking more bottled water.
Her family have even starting bathing at local swimming holes, which have become "packed with people".
She's slightly concerned about having to collect water from the three 30,000-litre water tanks installed by Civil Defence Northland at the former RSA carpark if the town's supply runs dry.
"I've lived in Kaikohe all my life, and I've never seen it this hot and dry before. It's a wake-up call for a lot of people, including my kids. They used to take water for granted," she said.
However, Tito-Brown is looking on the bright side.
"It's community building," she said. "The council could have acted sooner, especially since the forecast is no rain for a while. But it's no-one's fault the weather is like this. No-one is to blame."
Over in Kaitaia - which also has level 4 restrictions where water is for essential drinking, cooking and washing only - hairdresser Tracey, from Arcade Hair, is flat out with clients popping in for a shampoo because water is running out at their homes.
Water is crucial for her business, and she is trying to use less by working faster.
The general feeling among people in town is they are "desperate for water", she said.
"Every client talks about it, they're all aware. We're all in the same boat."
The whole of Northland is being urged to save water, and a drought was declared by the Government on Tuesday.
The declaration of a medium-scale adverse weather event for the primary sector covers all areas north of the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
Forecasters are predicting it could be months before the region receives decent rain, prompting the Far North District Council to install emergency water tanks in Kaikohe and Kaitaia as back-up.
There are also tough water restrictions in Kaipara, the Whangarei District Council is preparing for the possibility of supplying water to other districts, and is soon likely to introduce water restrictions of its own.
Kaikohe is particularly affected; the council warns it has three to four days of treated water left in its reservoirs.
The town has two main water sources: Wairoro Stream and an aquifer at Monument Hill.
The council has already breached minimum water flow levels set by theNorthland Regional Council [NRC] at the Wairoro Stream and has reached limits for the Monument Hill aquifer.
The council plans to ask NRC to allow more groundwater to be taken from Monument Hill as a "stop-gap measure".
But this doesn't wash with the Waikotihe Trust, which believes it will compromise the Waikotihe Puna.
The natural spring has long supplied the Aperahama Church, Ngāti Whakaeke hapū and Kotahitanga Marae and has deep significance for hapū members, who say it's key to their identity.
Trust chairman Wi Pou said a petition signed by 1000 hapū opposing the council taking more water will be submitted to NRC in coming days.
"We don't want to compromise the spring," Pou said.
"It's our taonga ... the puna will dry up if council take more. It's a worry for all of us but what do you do? Do you wait for it to happen or try and prevent it from happening? We're trying to be a step ahead."
Other Kaikohe businesses, schools, rest homes and residents are also scrambling to save water and many are trying to organise alternative sources and tanks.
Kaikohe Care Rest Home hospital manager Catherine Headon said the facility, which cares for 56 residents, was trying to restrict water "every way we can".
Staff were washing residents from a bowl rather than showering them and water from the bain maries, which keep food warm, was being reused.
The rest home has three days of bottled water stored in cupboards, but if the water taps are turned off, "it will be a huge problem".
"Everything that can be saved is being saved. It's an inconvenience at the moment, but we're aware it could be a bigger problem."
Percy and Cheree Cooper, of Thomas's Fish Shop, are forking out nearly $3000 for two water tanks, pumps and UV filters for their business and home, and plan to draw water from a family member's bore.
"It's put untold stress on us," Percy said. "It's hard enough trying to run a business without having to worry about water."
"Everyone is being affected," Cheree added. "A lot of families around here have a lot of children. It's going to be really difficult."
The couple said the council had shown "poor management" over the issue.
"The responsibility falls on the council that haven't addressed the problem and haven't shown any vision for the future," Percy said.
"It's just not right that in this day and age that a town runs out of water."
Café Malaahi owner Julie Harris has plastered council water-saving signs on her café tables and windows.
The neighbouring petrol station has closed its toilet for customers, and the café is no longer supplying free water, meaning customers have to buy it.
"Everyone is disgruntled," Harris said. "Way back in October we had the feeling we were going to have a water shortage. Level 4 should have been imposed then. It's really sad it's gone this far."
Kaikohe Business Association chairman Mike Kanji called the February 7 meeting which grew to include members of the public, who were briefed by the council, police, civil defence and Fire and Emergency NZ.
About 150 people turned out to voice their concerns, many accusing the council of not doing enough to avert the crisis.
Kanji is doing his best to offer solutions and support to business owners.
"This will probably happen next year and the year after, so businesses should think about putting tanks in or alternative water supplies," he said.
"Civil Defence has installed the emergency tanks, but it doesn't help the businesses. How can you run a takeaway shop or café when you've got no water?"
Shaun Reilly has lived in Kaikohe for 47 years and has never seen it this dry before.
"The Waikaka Stream has stopped running altogether. That says to me this is drier than it has been. What we've got is a warning sign that this will come back again."
Reilly reckons the council needs to draw water from other sources like the Papahawaiiki and Mangamutu streams, not just the Wairoro.
And it should have called a public meeting earlier, instead of leaving it to the business association, he said.
"They should have done a heck of a lot more to alleviate the situation we're in today."
Last week the Ministry of Education sent out guides to Northland schools and early childhood centres to help them assess whether to remain open during the water shortages.
The guides include information about drinking water, toilets and sewerage, cleaning, nappy changing, hand washing and gastrointestinal illness.
Spokeswoman Katrina Casey encouraged schools to stay up to date by checking Civil Defence and district council Facebook pages.
"It's a challenging situation for the region," Casey said. "Water is essential for the good running of schools and early childhood services and the health and safety of children is paramount."
Kaikohe East School was so concerned it called a meeting with seven local school principals and early childhood centre managers on Tuesday.
The meeting was attended by Mayor John Carter, councillor Moko Tepania and Ministry of Education representatives.
Kaikohe East Principal Chicky Rudkin said there were no plans to close the schools.
"It would have a huge impact on whānau, businesses and the community. That's not an option."
Rudkin said she feels "a lot more confident and comfortable" after hearing first-hand the council's plans to secure future water resources.
"If nothing else, it's been a really good community project. It's made us all get together and ensure our communication is clear. We're doing as much as we can."
Ngāwhā Prison and hospitals are also working closely with authorities.
Northland Region Corrections Facility prison director Michael Rongo said the prison, which usually consumes 225,000 litres per day, had suspended non-essential water use for its community gardens.
It had also reduced water pressure across the site, disabled outside taps and cut prisoners' showers from two five-minute showers per day to one shower lasting three minutes.
A 30,000-litre tank is arriving this week for drinking water for staff and prisoners.
"We are committed to doing all we can to reduce use of the local water supply at this critical time."
The Northland District Health Board is working closely with emergency services and Civil Defence.
Spokeswoman Jeanette Wedding said the birthing units had stopped water births. It also might consider switching to hand sanitiser instead of washing hands with water in non-clinical situations.
The DHB provided the council and Civil Defence with details of the Mid and Far North's eight home dialysis patients so they can be looked after as "priority sites for water", Wedding said.
In Kaitaia, the town's main source of drinking water, the Awanui River, has the lowest water flow on record going back 50 years.
Far North iwi Te Rarawa is trying to manage water supplies for the 200ha market farm called Bell's Produce it bought last year.
Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi said they had restricted water use, although it hadn't affected production yet.
"It will probably affect the business if the drought continues, but not significantly at this stage.
"Water is connected to everything; our business in part survives on water and we have to make sure there's ongoing availability and contingency plans because it's so dry."
The NRC publicly warned four months ago the region was facing large rainfall deficits, flagging the need for sensible pre-summer planning.
Group manager regulatory services Colin Dall said district councils might need to look at imposing water restrictions earlier than normal.
The Kaipara District Council was the first to impose level 4 restrictions in Dargaville including Baylys Beach.
Kaipara Mayor Dr Jason Smith said the Kaihu River was monitored constantly, and the fact it was dropping was of concern.
The council had asked the NRC to move into an "emergency water take situation" to continue taking water from the river, he said.
"The challenge for Kaipara is that most people are on tank water not town water, and the tank water supplies normally come from Dargaville.
"Right now, there are limits on water carriers being able to get their water from the Dargaville supply. The only people who can do so are people with medical conditions."
Smith said although the North had had dry periods before, this year was significant because it was three weeks early.
"It makes the journey longer. That's a huge concern."
Far North Mayor John Carter said the council was making "significant progress" on establishing temporary and permanent, long-term supplies to supplement Kaikohe and Kaitaia water sources.
The council was also working with other local authorities and government officials to create an overall water strategy which covered infrastructure and water retention, he said.
"We're doing as much as we can given where we're at. Going forward, I'm confident we'll get temporary and long-term supplementary supplies that will help us through circumstances like this. I'm hoping to have this in place within the next 12 to 15 months."
The Government has promised $31.2million to progress water storage projects in Northland in a bid to make the region resilient in the face of extreme weather.
The Northland water storage and use project has identified about 6300ha of potential land, which may be suitable for conversion to horticulture in Kaipara as part of a water supply scheme, another 1600ha south of Kaikohe and 1700ha near Lake Omapere.
Northland MP Matt King said although this would help with land intensification in years to come, the project wouldn't be an answer to town water supply issues.
"It could take years before anything gets off the ground."
King said it was simply not acceptable to run out of water, particularly when there were regular droughts combined with population growth. The council needed to address some "fundamental issues".
"They've clearly not invested enough in finding and funding water supplies and infrastructure.
"Towns are growing and if we're having water restrictions every time it gets dry it's not good enough. We're supposed to be a first-world country."
Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis said 2019 was one of the driest years on record in the region for many decades.
"This is a very challenging time. I know everyone in our communities ... particularly in Kaikohe and Kaitaia, will be coming together and supporting each other to get through this."
Many residents have asked about installing tanks on their residential sections.
The council says:
• Households and businesses connected to council water supplies can install rainwater tanks.
• Installing a tank up to 35,000 litres will not require a building consent.
• An earthworks permit or resource consent may be needed for properties in coastal hazard areas.
• Visit fndc.govt.nz/Our-Services
Firefighters make portable water plans
Northland's fire crews are doing their bit to conserve water despite working flat out putting out preventable fires lit by people disregarding the fire ban.
Fire and Emergency NZ Muriwhenua area commander Wipari Henwood said there had been more than 100 preventable fires in the Far North since the prohibited season was announced in January.
Three 15,000-litre portable dams have been set up in Kaikohe and Kaitaia and filled with stream water for firefighting use.
Firefighters are using water tankers and the water carried in fire appliances, rather than hydrants. They're washing hoses and kits at Moerewa's freezing works and may soon have to travel to Whangārei.
It was time-consuming and costly, Henwood said. But he's heartened by several "selfless" farmers who have offered fire crews the use of their dams.
They include farmer Terence Brocx, who has offered water from his Ohaeawai and Puketi farms, and Pakaraka farmer Alec Jack, from Ngawhitu Ltd, who's offered water from his dam known as Jack's Lake.
"What's critical for us is the turnaround time to get to a fire," principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor said.
"It's great that farmers who face severe water shortages themselves are being that community minded. It's quite wonderful."
Concerns for elderly
Dozens of Kaikohe residents who turned out to a public hui on Friday voiced their concerns for the elderly, very young and vulnerable who may be affected by ongoing water shortages.
The hui was called by Materoa Mokaraka, who has lived in the town for 57 years.
Far North District Council chief executive Shaun Clarke, Kaikohe-Hokianga councillors Moko Tepania and John Vujcich, infrastructure and asset management general manager Andy Finch, and Ngapuhi chairwoman Mere Mangu also attended.
"As a ratepayer, I pay land and water rates and I want to know what's happening and where my money is going to," Mokaraka said.
"Young families and parents and the elderly, how are they going to cope? I'm very concerned for our children and babies."
Another resident, a support worker for the elderly and disabled in Kaikohe, raised concerns about her bed-bound clients and how they would access water due to the water crisis.
"If you shut our water off how are my people going to line up and get water? How are you going to help the elderly?"
Finch said the council had storages of bottled water and smaller water containers. "We will endeavour to supply them through our own staff."
Finch called the current drought an "unprecedented event which may be the new norm".
"If we do nothing and don't cut water consumption, we will run out of water in three to four weeks," he said.