A river ran through it
The Observer (
Australian farmers always know someone else who is doing it tougher. They pride themselves on their resilience. They take pleasure in living in 'a sunburnt country of droughts and flooding rains'. Conservative and deeply sceptical, many dismiss global warming as hogwash. But with unprecedented water scarcity and the
Financially, the drought is pinching as far away as the
Professor Tim Flannery, an Australian environmental scientist and an international leader on climate change, has no doubts. '
This extended dry spell began in 1998. Four years later came the one-in-100-years drought. Last year was declared a once-in-a-millennium event. Every city, bar
The extent of the crisis was illustrated in January, when the Prime Minister, John Howard, announced a A$10bn (£4.3bn) package to seize control of the Murray-Darling basin, the nation's food bowl, accounting for 41 per cent of Australia's agriculture and A$22bn worth of agricultural exports. The region covers an area the size of
Malcolm Holm knows just how bad things can get. A dairy farmer with a bullish smile, Holm, 39, is a respected pillar in his local community of Finley, on the flat plains of southwest New South Wales (NSW). He depends, as do more than 50,000 other farmers, on the River Murray. I first meet Malcolm and his wife, Jenny Wheeler, 47, in
Last October, with no water flowing into the major dams, the NSW government faced an unparalleled situation. Following last year's lowest inflows into the
Aside from running his own 1,000 acres and 500 dairy cows, Holm works tirelessly on a raft of community committees. The day after the second water cut, which had 'blown out' his drought strategy and would cost him A$1.5m from the loss of water, fodder and milk production, he was back at work in the dairy. The grain auger - a cylindrical barrel that moves the grain from one massive silo to the other - was jammed. After fiddling with the machine he flicked a switch. 'I wasn't concentrating.' He pauses, frowning. 'I was thinking about water.' It was the wrong switch. In the blink of an eye, Malcolm Holm had sliced off his hand.
In March 2006, Professor Flannery's The Weather Makers was published in the
In his book, Flannery describes the dramatic decline in winter precipitation in southwestern
Five years ago, during the last major drought, I travelled through western Queensland, across a fragile, red-baked landscape that was obviously not suited to the hooves of millions of cattle and sheep - there are no Australian native animals with cleft hooves - and met farmers whose dreams were crumbling to dust. Back then, there was virtually no mention of global warming. The problem was attributed to the dry, cyclical conditions caused by El Nino, a powerful climatic phenomenon linked to the
Fast-forward to July 2007 and few scientists doubt the 'big dry' is caused, in part, by climate change. Some refer to it as a climate shift; others, like Flannery, who matches Al Gore in his Armageddon-like predictions, are unequivocal that it is a foretaste of what's to come. As the first developed nation to experience such a prolonged dry spell, it's no wonder that the rest of the world is looking on to see how
This time I chose not to trek to the burnished outback. I wanted to see the effect of the drought a day's drive from Sydney or Melbourne. This wouldn't be a story of skeletal cows and cracked earth, rather the more complex tale of water mismanagement and a pounding assault by humans on a delicate ecosystem.
What is remarkable is the seismic swing among ordinary Australians over the past 12 months. The synergy of An Inconvenient Truth (although John Howard, until recently a climate sceptic, snubbed Gore on his Australian tour), the release of the Stern Report by British economist Sir Nicholas Stern and a rise in food prices have combined as a loud wake-up call. Now, as the stress of trying to squeeze every drop out of an over-stretched waterway threatens to tear communities apart, fierce public debate has forced the environment to the forefront of this year's general election. Two massive desalination plants will be built in Victoria and NSW, following the construction of
For Flannery, these are baby steps. 'We could be the
It was Mark Twain who compared the River Murray to
Nearly 60 years ago, the Snowy Hydro scheme was opened, harnessing the headwaters of three rivers to generate hydroelectricity and capture melting winter snows in two large lakes, Eucumbene and Jindabyne. With the creation of 16 dams and countless weirs, the scheme promised to 'drought proof' the nation by creating a reliable supply of water to the
When it comes to the River Murray, nothing is straightforward. Despite the commission in charge of the river being set up in 1917, it is only this year that the federal government is wresting control from the four states which, until now, have had their own rules and conflicting regulations. While
The accumulation of years of over-allocation and drought has resulted in a pitifully low stream level. In June 2006, the catchment received an inflow of 700 gigalitres. A year later, it had plummeted to 300 gigalitres. (One gigalitre is 1,000m litres.) What is keeping the region functioning is the depleted water storage in dams like Hume, just outside Albury, a bustling centre on the border between NSW and Victoria. And it is from Albury that I set off, the day after meeting Malcolm Holm.
Ironically, it's raining. To an untrained eye, the green verges look promising. To Neville and Ruth Kydd, the grass in their paddocks is too sparse for their herd of dairy cows, which they have been hand-feeding since Christmas. This salt-of-the-earth couple, in grubby jeans and wellies, were particularly hard hit by last year's water cuts. They had bought A$500,000 worth of water early in the season, but the government took back almost half, Neville tells me, grim-faced. 'How could they get it so wrong? It's mind-boggling.'
From their spartan bungalow it is 15 miles down the road to Prairie Home, the generous homestead of Louise and Andrew Burge. A log fire burns; tea and cake are laid out on a wooden kitchen table, alongside a wad of typed notes. Louise, 49, has written a summary of the state of their sheep and crop farm. She refutes evidence that the current drought is driven by climate change, providing a series of old photographs showing the
'Global warming represents a herd mentality with a herd mentality for the solutions,' she begins. '
Nonetheless, the effect on rural towns all along the
For the past four years, Cockayne hasn't made a cent from the cereals on his 3,000-acre property 20 miles south of Deniliquin. This year he had to pay for water to be trucked in to flush his toilet. He grits his teeth. 'I know about depression,' he goes on. 'I locked myself in at home for four days. Then I got in the family car and drove into town. A friend found me slumped over the steering wheel crying. I never thought I'd be a person who would suffer from it, but I've been better since I went to a grief and depression counsellor.'
'In the first seven years, I had, on average, two people a year from the farming community who presented with depression,' Dr Harry von Rensburg tells me in his surgery in Barham, 60 miles west of Deniliquin. An owlish, direct-talking South African GP, Von Rensburg has lived in Barham for the past decade. This year he is 'actively managing' more than 120 farmers, including some of the most high-profile landowners in the district. A psychologist comes once a week and has back-to-back appointments. 'If we could get her twice a week we would fill that.'
A year ago, Beyond Blue, the national mental health body, reported that one farmer commits suicide in
'Absolutely. In the past three years there have been eight suicide attempts here. A handful are on suicide watch - their spouses or children have taken control of firearms.' He leans back in his big black chair. 'Shooting is the most favoured method; second is hanging.'
Von Rensburg puts this dramatic increase down to the drought's longevity and the uncertainty it brings. 'People are asking themselves, will this be ongoing? Are we going to see our landscape change? That is the greatest fear - what we can't control.'
Neil Eagle, the grand old man of orchard farming in the region, is a sprightly 73-year-old with large, dirt-encrusted hands and a deep, rumbling voice. He refuses to be beaten. Unlike his neighbour, who didn't purchase water this year, and whose orange trees are virtually bare, Eagle's citrus forest looks healthy. 'It could get to the stage where there's no water to buy,' he says, biting open a juicy orange. 'We could lose our trees. Then it would take seven to 10 years to get back into production. That would be very serious.'
Eagle's family have been living around Eagle Creek since 1870. 'As far as temperature changes go, in the Forties and Fifties it was definitely hotter than it is now,' he says. 'I don't agree with the doom and gloom merchants that the sea is going to rise.' He gives a wry smile. 'It's become nearly a religion, this idea of global warming.' Still, he can't resist a swipe at those downstream in
Some 300 miles west of Eagle Creek, in
The twisted, ashen-grey branches of the black box eucalyptus and river gums are stark indicators of the region's deteriorating health. These hardy trees require natural flooding to survive. They have done without a decent drink for over a decade, but now there's 'an abrupt change', according to Jensen. 'If we got a flood in the next two to three years we could save the river, but only with enormous amounts of rain.'
A mile from
Two years ago, the 'Living Murray' programme pledged to recover 500 gigalitres, the equivalent of
This 60-mile stretch of wetlands holds a particularly poignant place in Australian history, as the inspiration for the film Storm Boy, about a young lad who befriends a pelican called Mr Percival. The Coorong is an internationally recognised wetland sanctuary for migratory birds, but it sits on a part of the coast that is now gasping to stay alive as sand pours in. Over the years there has been a steady decline in its pelican population, due to a lack of fish and hyper-salinity. The water in the southern lagoon of the Coorong is four times saltier than the ocean.
As Anne Jensen explains, 'In South Australia there is water in the river and it looks all right, because of artificial pools held up by weirs. You can see plants and birds.' She pauses, sighing. 'It's the same problem with the drought. It's been raining, people's gardens are green. But it's a false image.' And many hundreds of kilometres away in Albury there is no water in the Hume dam.
I catch up again with Malcolm Holm and his family at the Hume dam. Reduced to 12 per cent of its capacity, there is a yawning gap of cracked red earth at the end of the boat ramp where the water level should be, and the limbs of blackened trees reach skywards. Holm laughs when I tell him that after driving around the region, I'm drowning in arguments about water allocation. 'It is very political,' he says.
What has struck me is that if temperatures continue to rise globally, as predicted, what is happening now in
The future of many Australian farmers hangs in the balance.
Notwithstanding showers in recent months, the pendulum from a La Nina wet-weather phase, which usually follows an El Nino drought, has not swung. 'And it is unlikely to do so for the rest of the year,' says Dr David Jones, head of climate analysis at
Last year the drought whittled 1 per cent off the national economy, and this year reduced the available annual milk supply by more than a billion litres. As I write this in late July, during
Living with such continued stress inevitably takes its toll, as it did on Holm, known by his friends as a particularly careful person. What's improbable is how rationally he dealt with the tragic mistake in his dairy. 'I called Jenny on the mobile and told her I'd cut off my hand,' he says. It had ended up on the ground after going through the whole machine and was taken and preserved by the paramedics. 'Luckily it wasn't mangled.' Holm was given a hefty dose of morphine and antibiotics and transferred by air to a
'He amazed me,' says Jenny, who travelled with him. 'On the plane, he kept saying, "Have you got that esky?"' How did you cope? She shrugs and smiles, her face crumpled from the strain. 'He's still alive. I knew we'd be OK.'
Five weeks and 22 hours of anaesthetic later, Malcolm's hand was sewn back on. As he pulls off the protective glove, Ellena screws up her face and looks as queasy as I feel. 'The first skin grafts from my arm didn't take, so they took 12ml [of skin] from my back,' he points to the bulbous lump on the wrist. 'I've got another three operations ahead. There are two tendons to stitch up, pins to remove and a bit of liposuction on the arm to get rid of the flap.' Movement is returning as the nerves grow back. 'It's a good outcome,' he says, cradling his arm. 'It's the little things... I can't do up a button, so we've put Velcro on my shirts.' At least it's your left hand, I say. 'I am left-handed.' He gives a dry smile. 'But I feel lucky. If I was wearing a jumper or a long-sleeved shirt I wouldn't have had an arm at all.'
Malcolm had to hire extra staff, and eight households are now dependent on his business. What if the drought doesn't break? 'We're in a lot of trouble.' His eyes narrow. 'We have very little fodder. After mid-August, there's no hay left.' He half-laughs. 'I'm a typical farmer. I just get on with it. Life's always a challenge.'
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