It’s no secret that Australia’s farmers have been doing it tough. The two worst droughts on record in Australia have been in the past 17 years. The drought of 1991–1995, which was at its most severe in Queensland, was at that time the worst extended drought in recorded Australian history.
After a few good years of rain, between 2000 and 2003, the drought returned with a vengeance, leaving earlier dry spells in its wake and crippling farmers across most of the continent.
Which is quite a statement, since Australia is prone to weather extremes, and droughts have blighted our history from the earliest days of European settlement. Most of our droughts have been caused by a weather pattern known as El Nino. In the past 150 years alone, there have been 11 extended drought periods, which have devastated our agriculture and pastoral industries, often cutting production by half or more.
The federation of the Australian colonies in 1901 occurred in the middle of a terrible drought that drastically cut wheat production and, not for the last time, threatened Sydney’s water supplies. A decade-long drought from 1937 hindered Australia’s contribution to World War II, while the drought of 1965–68 contributed to the 1967 Tasmanian bushfires, which killed 62 people and destroyed 1400 homes in a single day. The drought of 1982-83 was the most severe short-term drought in our history, and again led to widespread dust storms and fires that killed 75 in eastern Australia.
But the long-term effect of the past two dry spells is forcing a permanent change to how Australians relate to the land. Over the past couple of years, some areas of New South Wales have been able to produce just 5 per cent of their usual cotton crop, and others, even worse off, have produced nothing at all. This has pushed thousands to the brink of ruin and beyond, not just farmers but the townships that provide the services and depend on farm incomes. A number of these townships saw their water reservoirs dry up, and were forced to survive on water trucked in over long distances.
How do you cope if you live in a rural community and you have just experienced the worst droughts ever, back to back? Barely having pulled through one, the next one hits. Government financial assistance is useful but it cannot solve the fundamental issue.
And then, after all seemed lost, substantial rain fell across broad areas of eastern Australia in the winter of 2007, and farmers risked their little remaining capital to plant a new crop. Forecasters predicted the weakening of the El Nino effect, anticipating the return of more consistent rains. And then, nothing.
No rain. The crops sprouted, then shrivelled. Each day, each week, the skies remained bright and sunny, while hopes headed in the opposite direction.
For irrigators already hit with massive reductions in water allocations, the sad news for many of them was that the water allocation for 2008 would be zero. This was forced on them because of negligible rainfall over the Darling catchment, especially in Queensland, producing a river system in crisis. Parts of the Darling River network were just a string of muddy waterholes or bare, dry sand.
Meanwhile, the drought has even managed to affect the lifestyles of the bulk of Australians, who live in coastal urban areas, far removed from— and often insulated from—the outback.
Many major cities saw reservoir water dwindle to percentages in the teens, and strict water restrictions were introduced. Climate experts warn us drought is no longer an exception but a base for future trends.
The message is that this is the beginning of a major and permanent shift in how we use the limited water resources we have, on what is the driest continent on the planet. Politicians have begun plans for the future, including recycling water, stormwater harvesting and desalination, in order to preserve the hope of future growth and mere survival of our existing lifestyle.
And then, late spring and early summer 2007, the rains began. By the end of November, most of Australia’s eastern states had received at least 100 mm of rain. Bands of rain continued through December, with good falls across most of the country.
The areas no longer in drought in New South Wales rose from 7 to 15 per cent in November, with hopes that greater areas would soon be off the drought list.
Newspapers published stories of gleeful farmers knee-deep in grass, contrasted with photos from just a few months earlier of bare, red earth. The Darling River began to flow again, with eager outback citizens following the first wave of water as it trickled down the river bed. For the time being, things look hopeful for many, where the outlook was bleak just weeks before. Weather forecasters talked up the prospect of a reasonably wet summer.
However, the positive news is not uniform. Selected areas are predicted to receive less than average rainfall, and will struggle while the rest do well.
Then, of course, hanging over our collective heads is the repeated warning that in the future, the southern half of Australia will receive less rainfall, while the tropical regions will receive more.
What are we to make of all this? In the middle of disaster comes renewed hope but with the threat of future, permanent water troubles.
Hope is so vital to the wellbeing of individuals and communities. Without it, we fall into despair; with it, we can look the blackest circumstances in the face, expecting a better outcome in the future. We seek hope from various sources. Often those we love most, our family and friends, provide us with hope. Our children are often called the hope of the future (although sometimes we despair when we see the mistakes they make!). Politics can be a source of hope. With a recent change of government in Australia, some voters have a renewed sense of hope, while others may be feeling the opposite.
And a new year can provide hope— a chance to wipe the past and start afresh as New Year’s resolutions express our anticipation of a better future. The problem with each of these is their potential to fail at critical moments.
Family, politicians, New Year’s resolutions— each has a history of not fulfilling our dreams.
For many people, religious faith is a source of hope. A sense of a Power greater than ourselves promises what we long for but cannot assure ourselves of. Hope is one of the underpinning messages of Christianity, with its assurance of a God who cares about us at all times—even in cases where our own behaviour may make us virtually unlovable, or circumstances so hostile.
God promises grace and acceptance to each of us, regardless of our situation, background, religion, ethnicity or any other barrier we may invent.
While the weather charts may threaten us, family deserts us, politicians fail us, and even our own resolve lets us down, God is reliable and trustworthy.
He holds out hope that can keep us going through the darkest—and driest— times.