Drought in the Australian interior

| 16th December 2008
As the worst drought in 100 years makes its effects felt in the southern hemisphere, Dan Box asks whether the Australian interior is becoming a terra nullius – a genuine no-man’s-land

The stockmen stalk the cattleyard through clouds of dust and the slanted rays of winter sun, driving the herd before them. A bull has become separated from the rest and flails desperately against the rusted metal fence. One man, Randall Crozier, has his back turned to the animal, unconcerned.

‘Watch your back, mate. Watch your back, mate!’ another shouts.

Crozier doesn’t turn. He walks on, pokerfaced. The bull rears, crashes down into the red dirt and hurtles past, the black steamengine body brushing his shoulder. Crozier turns and grins. He has gambled, and won.

It is 2pm on a Monday at Anna Creek in South Australia, the world’s largest cattle station – at 24,000 square kilometres, it is bigger than Israel. These hungry-looking cattle are among the very last remaining on the property. Within days they will be sold. Drought, now in its seventh year, has slowly bleached the land, forcing the station to empty itself of cattle in order to save them. The land is dotted with the carcasses of those that didn’t make it, whose dried skin holds the shape of full bodies, though the guts and bones have long been hollowed out by dingoes.

The station’s human population has also been sent away; soon only Crozier, the station manager, his head stockman and cook will remain amid this vast empty land, waiting for rain. This too is a gamble, but then that is how farmers have always dealt with drought in Australia: in small wagers. Next year it will rain. Only today, more and more, they lose, choosing to fold rather than face another year of bleak blue skies. Of watching fields wither into no-man’s-land.

A losing hand?

While the collapse of the country’s arterial Murray-Darling river system has drawn most attention, across inland Australia people are being forced into retreat at unprecedented rates. Forces afoot in the bush for decades – mechanisation and the swallowing-up of smaller farms by larger ones – have bred fewer and fewer jobs, and the drought has decimated those that remain. On average, between 2001 and 2006 more than five farming families a day walked away from the land. An as-yet-unpublished study funded by the Australian Research Council describes ‘a stagnant or retreating settlement frontier.’

For all its size, Anna Creek is one property within a bigger operation, established in the early 1900s under the rule of Sidney Kidman, the ‘Cattle King’. Born into drought in 1857, Kidman ran away from home aged 13 to follow his brothers into cattle droving. He bought land from farmers who had failed, and strung his properties together in what became the largest pastoral empire in modern history. By moving cattle between properties, Kidman believed he would survive any drought. But the six years Crozier has managed the property have coincided neatly with what the Bureau of Meteorology calls the worst dry-run since the ‘Federation drought’ more than a century ago.That dry run has savaged even Kidman’s realm.


Crozier himself is defiant. He is 51 and has been working cattle since he was a ringer in a droving team, aged 13. Strongly built, he has an easy grin and the mottled pink and brown skin of a fair man tanned deeply by a lifetime in the sun. He tours the station on foot and in his Land Cruiser, matching his remaining men to the day’s demands.

‘It’s like playing poker every morning. You get a new hand, you’ve got a plan in the back of your mind how the day’s going to unfold. But there’s always a joker in the pack somewhere,’ he says.

Place your bets

You would have a hard time getting Crozier to admit the joke is wearing thin. For all its cruelty, drought is part of the natural order here in the driest state in the driest inhabited continent on Earth, and despite his losing streak, he bluntly refuses to accept it won’t break soon. Since the last good year of rain, in 2001, the Australian government has flooded $3.5 billion into rural drought-relief. This financial year the figure leapt by $760 million, with greater costs foreseen for the future.

Graeme Hugo, a University of Adelaide professor who has studied the drought’s effects on inland migration, says its full impact is still unknown. ‘You see how tenacious communities are when you see how little these people have earned in the past few years, and yet they are determined to continue,’ he says. ‘They’re betting on their own survival.’

The British settlement of Australia was justified, after the event, by claiming the continent was terra nullius – literally, no-man’s-land. This Latin phrase was an extension of the Roman principle of res nullius to real estate: res – objects capable of being owned but that were not yet clearly in somebody’s possession – were available to the first taker. A common thread traced through Biblical thought, European philosophy and eventually international law was that land was not possessed until it was farmed. As the Aborigines did not seem to be farmers, they could rightly be ignored.

Convinced they had right on their side, the early Australian settlers stocked their land to European quotas, based on the assumption of seasonal, European, rain. They introduced rabbits, which caused such devastation they were called ‘the living drought’. Rivers were diverted to flood imported, water-intensive crops such as rice and cotton. In doing so, the farmers failed to understand the Australian climate, one of wild variability, not regular seasons; of droughts and flooding rains. Their quotas, crops and rabbits ensured that when conditions were right, drought would return – bigger and more destructive than ever. And the right conditions could become routine.

The drought advances

A recent Australian government report on climate change predicts the most severe droughts – one in 20-25 year events – will occur twice as often over the next 30 years. Average temperatures will keep rising. Extreme heatwaves are likely to occur more than 10 times as often, almost every single year.

 ‘While this is a scientific report, parts of these high-level projections read more like a disaster novel,’ says the federal agriculture minister Tony Burke. But action, like understanding, has been slow to arrive. ‘In terms of government policy, we now know what would happen if we did nothing.’

Today, Anna Creek is one bastion holding out – just – against the drought. Others along the ‘wheat-sheep belt’, an agricultural frontier running across the south of the continent, are being overwhelmed. The government recently extended drought relief to 32 areas across this region. The drought has retreated in just four areas. On rainfall-deficiency maps, these shifting fortunes look like a virus spreading. In Adelaide, Dr Peter Hayman tracks them from his office at the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI). Hayman is thin and careful with his words. He has never farmed himself; he studied applied science at university and became fascinated with the rural world modelled on his laptop screen. With government funding he studies the new hand being dealt by climate change, and how farmers can adapt. While others call it gambling, Hayman prefers risk management. After all, you are dealing with people’s dreams and ideas. ‘You make your own luck,’ he says.

To do that, farmers need forecasts of rainfall, temperature and pasture growth. Hayman’s Climate Applications Unit provides these, modelling the changing climate based on years of records and the daily experience of farmers themselves. This information forms tributaries running into the more complex data streams of topography, geography and atmospheric projections. The institute synthesises these and assigns predictions to individual bits of land. The result arrives in your email inbox. This year the unit has also run ‘climate risk-management workshops’ for farmers across the state. These teach how to estimate risk and how attitudes to it are formed, as well as recent developments in forecast technology. With this information, farmers can decide what to chance, and where. Across the hardscrabble farming country of South Australia people know about SARDI for its work on cost/benefit analysis of crops, breeding programmes or genetic markers for production traits in sheep – in effect, all the ways of managing risk. This is something new, something promising that offers probabilities. Hayman has seen a change in attitude. ‘People are less and less asking, “What is climate change?” and asking “How can we manage it?”’ he says.

Leaving the land

The technology involved, however, defines its own limitations. Email predictions can only be used by those with the inbox to receive them. Risk management data is meaningless if you cannot read; in Australia, those who do not still fall under same blank areas on the rainfall forecast maps. Research on drought’s effect on the Aboriginal population across the state’s north and over its borders are still in their infancy. On the ground, it is apparent that a tough place is getting worse.

In Wanarn, a dirt-road central desert town of about 100 people, Valerie Foster picks a piece of charcoal from the fire behind her to draw a map on the concrete floor. In quick black strokes she outlines the mission school at which she spent her childhood in the 1950s. There were the cattle pens; there the herds of sheep and goats. The river she used to swim in. All of it now just barren ground.

‘There hasn’t been enough rain since the mission closed,’ she says.

Living nomadically, Aborigines could once adapt to the wild variability of their climate by moving, following the rain. The missionary schools, with their distribution of ration food and, later, welfare payments, slowly encouraged a more settled existence, with the last nine nomads coming in out of the desert at a town just north of Wanarn in 1984.

During her childhood holidays, Foster’s family would still collect her from the mission school and walk out through the desert, spending weeks hunting for food and sleeping each night beside a different waterhole. She sketches a journey, lines representing the day’s walk between circles where they stopped and drank. Nobody does that any more, she says. They can’t: the springs have all dried up.

‘I tell my granddaughter how beautiful it was then. Beautiful flowers, Sturt peas. She doesn’t believe me,’ Foster says. ‘No, the days of walking in the desert are over.’

Outside town, the ruined machinery of two dried-up wells rust under the sun. When these failed, a few years into the current drought, people talked about closing Wanarn down. Eventually another borehole was dug 20km away and water is now piped in.

Hope for the future? Of more immediate concern is the absence of people themselves. The single shop struggles without dedicated shopkeepers. The highschool teacher – the fifth this year – is leaving after two terms. Almost all the young men and women over school-age, who’ll soon be parents, have followed the bright lights to bigger towns and cities. While they have not directly been driven away by drought, their loss makes it harder for those who remain. The town farm has been abandoned. The bright bougainvillea flowers planted a decade ago, whose petals are used in funeral ceremonies, go unwatered and have begun to die.

Recent government research shows a sudden torrent of people out of what it describes as ‘very remote’ Australia in the five years before the 2006 census. This area – which blankets most of the country, pulled back only from the line of cities at its edge – has lost one in five of its population in that time.

Without people, the land becomes feral. Camels, rabbits and foxes have bred themselves into plagues. Almost every desert waterhole that has endured the drought has now been poisoned by camel shit. Under international law, any thing that is abandoned – such as shipwrecked property carried up on some distant beach – is once again available for the first taker.

‘This burgeoning environmental hazard to the Australian nation, together with the dynamics of the human evacuation, is now taking on a self-fulfilling dimension in creating a true terra nullius,’ says Lieutenant General John Sanderson, a former army chief and state government special advisor on indigenous affairs. ‘Anyone who wasn’t expecting this simply hasn’t been paying attention.’

Only recently has there been a change in sentiment. A new government is in power and has finally committed Australia to the Kyoto Protocol, years late. Prominent scientists openly describe the country’s red centre as a ‘failed state’, and demand action.

Peter Hayman is at a public meeting in Keith, South Australia. Sixty farmers, collared shirts tucked into belted jeans, are discussing the weather. There is talk of the government’s proposed emissions trading scheme. Inside the raftered town hall, there is an acceptance of change. Even cautious optimism. People are talking about new opportunities. Outside it is raining, which helps. ‘A lot of these people see a reasonable chance that they will survive,’ Hayman says. You make your own luck.

Keith, like other rural towns, has begun to see a trickle of people arriving in search of cheaper land. Others are riding the country’s mining boom, buying up long-abandoned farm homes. With every new house raised on empty land, every mortgage agreed on a salary from the mines at Coober Pedy or Roxby Downs, a wager is placed: it won’t happen to me. In Australia, however, you need to accept that the odds are always changing.

Dan Box is a freelance writer who has been living in an Aboriginal community in the Australian central desert

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