“I predict that, in the future, people won’t fight wars over religion. They’ll fight wars over water”
That observation was made by a farmer whose property I visited as part of a backpacking tour in 1997, almost 20 years ago. The property was located in the dustbowl of mid-New South Wales. I was fresh off the boat along with 20 or so other European visitors with the Oz Experience tour. We spent an enjoyable two days on the cattle farm being bumped around on the back of a ute, castrating cows (for some) and exploring the farm which was approximately the size of France.
The Farmer told us that it had not rained on their property for four years. Four years with no water. With most of us coming from Europe where water shortages were unheard of – it was an eye-opener to the harsh reality of the Australian climate and life in the bush. No one was aware that years with no rain was common in remote Australia. The farmer and his family had been on a permanent economic and emotional rollercoaster to survive. They had sold off cattle, taken out huge loans to tide them over, hoping the next year would be better. Sons and daughters had left for the city, seeing a future of permanent struggle they they just could not face. Somehow or other they had managed to hang on. One option offered a glimmer of hope and a small income stream – tourism. And that’s why we were there. An opportunity to see a part of the real Australia. A long way from Bondi.
The farmer told us they had managed to finally step off this conveyor belt of misery quite by chance. The story went that someone had whispered in the town drunk’s ear that they thought there could be natural gas on their property. Before they knew it, the family had global conglomerates knocking on their door, asking for permission to drill a few holes to look for gas. Men in suits with dollar bills in their eyes. They drilled numerous holes before finally giving up on ever finding gas. Four of the holes they drilled however, yielded water. Nature’s lifeblood hundreds of feet beneath their farm pulled the family back from the brink of ruin.
The farmer told his coach of dumbstruck backpackers that based on his experience, landlocked countries in the future would not be fighting wars based on religious differences but over water. The cost of not having access to water is a price none of us can afford to pay when regular drought rips apart all hope in farming communities.
Here we are almost twenty years later and this issue of drought comes up again and again in this wide brown land. Farmers are killing themselves because they cannot survive without rainwater, cannot earn a living, cannot support their families, cannot pay their bills and cannot hold onto their mental health. Drought is a frequent and recurring event in this country. An unwelcome but persistent visitor.
What are we doing about it?
I was encouraged to read about the present government’s National Drought Program Reform. The program will assist farming communities to pro-actively plan for drought and put in place risk minimisation strategies. It is a multi-pronged approach with mutual obligation components built in to develop resilience and enhance long-term sustainability. The Program moves away from the ‘Exceptional Circumstance’ policy (triggered at the point of crisis) and places emphasis on preparing and planning for severe and prolonged climactic events.
It feels like it has been a long time coming. The reality is that successive governments’ policies have failed farming communities. And the evidence speaks for itself when every few years the question of a bailout package is raised as we have heard this week. A circuit breaker to help desperate agriculturists when they are just about at the end of the rope. Metaphorically and literally. Until the next time. But this is never going to solve the problem. We have to do better.
Perhaps the package of measures of the present government will lay the goundwork so that farmers do not keep finding themselves repeatedly in the same situation. They too must bear some of the responsibility to create a better future for themselves. I hope these measures help.
This government and this opposition need to work together to ensure this strategy is maintained and is not watered down, abolished or become victim to political point-scoring further down the track. Enough talking, more doing otherwise there will be no primary producers left in this country.
Too many lives have already been lost.