Climate change is often cast as a city/country issue. According to the stereotype, it’s city dwellers, not country folk, who get fired up about the warming planet.
But, in many ways, people in rural communities who depend on the land for their livelihoods are among the most susceptible to the impact of climate change. In southern Australia, which has just endured the driest October on record, we are getting a taste of how the changing climate will impact rural Australia.
I grew up on a mixed-enterprise farm near Wellington, New South Wales, where my father grazes sheep and cattle and grows wheat and canola. Since the drought began in March 2017, dad has had to significantly destock his property. At this time of year, when he would normally run 1200 ewes and 100 or so heifers and steers, he has 800 ewes and no cattle. All but two of the paddocks he sowed with crops have since been eaten out by stock.
Rainfall records show that this is the fourth three-year drought in the Wellington district since 1889. The first began in 1901, the second in 1944 and the third in 1964. What makes this drought different, suggests my dad, is the warmer temperatures that have accompanied it, creating the exceptionally dry conditions that have resulted in the huge dust storms that have rolled across the state and the current bushfire emergency.
The science of drought is complex. The combination of rising temperatures and declining rainfall in the southern parts of Australia will increase both the frequency and severity of drought in the future, making water security a critical issue.
As well as drought, regional communities will have to contend with the increased risk of bushfire in the coming decades
Towns all over New South Wales are already dealing with critical water shortages. Residents of Dubbo and Wellington, which have level four water restrictions, are encouraged to use 280 litres of water per person per day. In Tamworth, currently under level five water restrictions, the outdoor use of town water is prohibited, and residents are advised to use less than 150 litres per person per day. In the Upper Hunter community of Murrurundi, the town water supply ran out months ago.
Drought means four-minute showers, sacrificing your garden and making the kids go without a paddling pool during summer heatwaves. It also has serious economic impacts on communities, jeopardising the livelihoods of not only farmers but also the viability of businesses that serve the agricultural sector, as well as retail stores, cafes, restaurants and pubs in country towns.
As well as drought, regional communities will have to contend with the increased risk of bushfire in the coming decades due to reduced rainfall and hotter temperatures. In NSW and Queensland, where the official fire danger period begins on October 1, the conflagration started early in 2019 with fires raging out of control in September. This week, fire danger reached catastrophic levels for the first time as an unprecedented number of blazes burned on the eastern seaboard, tragically resulting in the loss of life and property.
According to Dale Dominey-Howes, Professor of Hazards and Disaster Risk Sciences at the University of Sydney, “our rapidly warming climate, driven by human activities, is exacerbating every risk factor for more frequent and intense bushfires.”
Writing in The Guardian about the bushfires that have ravaged her home on the NSW mid-north coast, MidCoast Council deputy mayor Claire Pontin argues that “[to] leave climate change out of this conversation is a betrayal of the regional communities that are threatened by these fires. How can we address the very real and growing threat to our safety while ignoring one of the major causes of unprecedented fire conditions?”
While my dad is unwilling to declare a climate emergency, like many farmers he is slowly making his farm more sustainable
There are plenty of farmers who are similarly concerned about climate change. Rob Lee, a farmer and grazier who lives in the same district as my dad, is a member of Farmers for Climate Action, a group that sees the agricultural sector as a vital part of the solution to climate change. Lee has adopted a range of “climate-smart” strategies on his farm, such as widescale tree-planting, reducing stock numbers and adopting new grazing management practices such as the creation of smaller paddocks to encourage pastures to grow strong root systems.
While my dad is unwilling to declare a climate emergency, like many farmers he is slowly making his farm more sustainable: installing solar panels, protecting waterways and adopting drought management strategies to preserve topsoil.
For other farmers, climate change is a reason to pioneer new practices. My cousin, who grew up on a cattle farm in NSW’s Central West, is experimenting on his Northern Rivers property with farming methods that are more sustainable and suited to a drier, hotter climate. His priorities are water security and the establishment of complex ecosystems, which he says are more resilient than traditional simple systems comprising cattle and a couple of grass species.
Change, argues Lee, should not be seen as bad or scary. “The industrial revolution saw the western world transform itself and our quality of life improved as a result - I think we can do that again now.”
Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @nicoheath