A river ran through it (part two)

Australia is the first developed nation to experience a prolonged dry spell, one that began in 1998. Claire Scobie concludes her complex tale of water mismanagement, human assault on a delicate ecosystem and tough times for the country’s farmers.

Ironically, it’s raining. To an untrained eye, the green verges near the border between the states of New South Wales and Victoria 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 late last December. This salt-of-the-earth couple, in grubby jeans and Wellington boots, were particularly hard hit by last year’s water cuts. They had bought A$500,000 (US$425,000) 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.”

Australia‘s water system is, indeed, mind-boggling. There are 24 different sorts of water licences in the Murray-Darling river basin alone, which provide irrigators with varying degrees of security. Almonds and oranges are on the more costly high-security licences because without regular sprinkling the trees will die. As Neville Kydd says, “If this season there is no water in the dam, virtually no dairy farmers will survive. It will return to sheep country. You can’t sustain those sorts of losses year in, year out.”

From their spartan bungalow, it is 15 miles (24 kilometres) 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 Murray in drier conditions than it is in now.

‘”Global warming represents a herd mentality with a herd mentality for the solutions,” she begins. “Australia has developed mass plantations in the upper catchments, so in the next drought we will have less run-off because the trees are going to take water. This will exacerbate the drought.” She pauses for breath. “My solution is to encourage new technologies and address emission reductions at the source.”

Even though Australia is one of only two western countries (the other is the United States) not to ratify the Kyoto treaty, it still adheres to international obligations to offset its emissions. According to a UN report, per capita, Australia’s emissions of greenhouse gases are among the highest in the world. While planting vast forests attempts to fix one problem, it creates another. As the drought bites, the conflict between farmers, traditionally portrayed as rampant land-clearers, and environmentalists is brought to the fore. In reality, while all the farmers I spoke to were global-warming sceptics, they also were passionate conservationists. And to be fair, as a huge island, Australia experiences such volatile swings in climate it can mask a perception of an irreversible shift. Farmers will argue that the current drought is very similar to that of the 1890s and 1940s.

Nonetheless, the effect on rural towns all along the Murray is acute. Figures from the Reserve Bank reveal that rural debt has almost doubled from A$26.4 billion in 1999 to A$43.3 billion in 2005. In Deniliquin, 20 minutes from the Burges’ farm, the wide streets are eerily quiet. That evening, in the empty Federal Hotel, I meet Wayne Cockayne, an obliging 44-year-old whose glassy eyes stare into the mid-distance. “This town’s gone backward,” he says, taking a sip on a Diet Coke. “In 1979, when I left school, the town was prospering. Farmers’ children are leaving the land now.”

For the past four years, Cockayne hasn’t made a cent from the cereals on his 3,000-acre (1,200 hectares) 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 office in Barham, 60 miles west of Deniliquin. An owlish, direct-talking South African general practitioner, 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 Australia every four days. I ask Dr Von Rensburg whether this figure is accurate.

“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 has 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 South Australia. “The equivalent of two-and-a-quarter Dartmouth Dams go up in evaporation in the Lower Lakes. It’s a squander of our resources.”

Some 300 miles west of Eagle Creek, in the state of South Australia, Anne Jensen is witnessing a collapse of entire ecosystems on the floodplains. In the Nineties, one local from Kingston-on-Murray described this as a ‘”garden of Eden” for river red gums, some of which are 400 years old. Today it resembles a graveyard. Jensen sees the “hundreds of thousands of trees” dying in the lower Murray as “a combined effect of a man-made drought in the river system, together with the severe natural drought which is proving to be the last straw”.

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 Kingston is Banrock Station. More famous in Britain for its crisp white wines than its pioneering conservation strategies, this vineyard pumps profits back into restoring the local wetlands. It has had considerable success in improving the Riverlands’ biodiversity, but due to the minimal amount of water in the Murray allocated for the environment, and the rising salinity, they can only achieve so much.

Two years ago, the “Living Murray” programme pledged to recover 500 gigalitres, the equivalent of Sydney Harbour, for the Murray for environmental purposes by 2009. At present they are likely to fall 80% short of that target. For years, the country’s most valued artery has been withering, some would say dying. “In 2002, the river ran out of water,” says Adelaide-based professor Mike Young, a water expert. “There are three dredges in the mouth to keep it open and to keep water going into the Coorong wetlands.”

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 wetlands 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% 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 Australia is bound to occur in other regions, where many countries share one river system — the Euphrates in the Middle East, the Mekong in Asia. The World Bank estimates that by 2025, about 48 countries will experience water shortages, affecting more than 1.4 billion people, the majority in under-developed regions. Here in Australia, at least the economy is robust and competing groups whose livelihoods depend on the dwindling flow of the Murray can sit down and talk. Where rivers cross borders, it won’t be a case of negotiating and compromise — it will be war.

The future of many Australian farmers hangs in the balance. Notwithstanding showers in recent months, the pendulum from a La Niña wet-weather phase, which usually follows an El Niño 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 Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. The drought, the bureau warns, is a long way from breaking. “It will take years to refill the dams.”

Last year the drought whittled 1% 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 2007, during Australia’s winter, the blistering summer is still several months away. But Professor Mike Young warns that already “Adelaide is in a very frightening situation. If it doesn’t rain and the dams don’t fill, there isn’t enough water in the system to supply the city.”

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 accident in his dairy in which he lost a hand. “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 Sydney hospital. His hand lay in ice in an “Esky”, a cool box more commonly used in Australia for chilling beers.

“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. “The first skin grafts from my arm didn’t take, so they took [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.”

The Observer Magazine

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

Homepage photo by Georgie Sharp via Flickr