From fire to flood for Australia's farmers
Horsham, Australia (AFP) Jan 23, 2011
Marshall Rodda weathered Australia's decade-long drought, but as he recovers from record-breaking floods the seasoned farmer can't help thinking that when it rains, it pours.
Before the rains began in April, Rodda was among the thousands of Australian farmers struggling to make ends meet in the country's "Big Dry" -- 10 parched years marked by ruinous weather and blamed for many suicides.
The exceptional dry period, brought on by an intense El Nino weather pattern, primed the southern state of Victoria for "Black Saturday", an explosive firestorm which killed 173 people in February 2009, razing entire towns.
Two years later the state, along with an area larger than France and Germany combined in the country's northeast, is battling churning floodwaters that have filled Rodda's dams to bursting and wrecked his cereal and bean crops.
"I guess it's some of those old poems -- the land of milk and honey, rags to riches, floods and fires," Rodda, 60, told AFP from his 5,000-acre farm in Warracknabeal in western Victoria.
"You live out in the bush, you've just got to understand that that can happen to you at any given time.
"I mean we're still in the middle of summer, we're having a flood in Warracknabeal, but in a month's time or tomorrow there's enough grass that's dry that we could have a bushfire.
"I don't want to talk about the bad things but that's what happens in this country."
The vast island continent of Australia, with climate zones ranging from the tropical to the alpine, is characterised by extremes.
Its sheer size, location and the fact that it is surrounded by oceans make it especially vulnerable to the parching El Nino phenomenon and its cousin, La Nina, which brings cyclones and flooding rains.
One system tends to dominate for a number of decades and then give way to the other, said the National Climate Institute's Blair Trewin, explaining that the 1990s and 2000s were El Nino periods, while the 1950s and 1970s brought floods.
Many rural families have worked the land for generations and are used to swings in their fortunes, but Queensland farmer John Cotter said the severity of the most recent drought and floods had pushed some to breaking point.
"When you get 10 years or more of the worst drought on record followed by these horrendous events... the potential for some people to cope with that economically is, I think, more than a challenge," he said.
"It's really, I think, going to stress a lot of people economically past the point of survival."
Many areas in both Victoria and Queensland were expecting their first bumper harvest since the drought when the flooding hit, wiping out whole fields, orchards and plantations.
The excitement of finally emerging from drought made the deluge even more crushing for some, shattering what little reserves were left and resurrecting fears of debt and destitution, said National Farmers' Federation chief Jock Laurie.
"You've got a crop sitting there waiting to be harvested one day, and you turn around the next day and it's all gone -- you've lost all your hard work, all your income, all your investment. It's just gone," Laurie said.
Some farmers had already pre-sold their produce and spent the money, meaning they would have fight their way out of contracts empty-handed.
"The impact is not one dimension, it comes from all angles -- emotionally, financially, just really pulling the rug out from underneath them," he said.
Alex Livingstone, president of horticulture lobby group Growcom, said some growers had lost up to $10 million dollars in stock and suffered such extensive damage that it would be years before the land could be used again.
"They were born in 1950 and they were probably working on the farm before man walked on the moon," Livingstone said of the devastated farmers, whose average age is 60.
"They've been there that long, what do they go and do now?"
The weather bureau's Trewin said the "jury's still out" on whether the climate extremes were becoming more severe, but Laurie was in no doubt.
"Those are things that have never been seen in our lifetime and won't be seen in our lifetime again, we're talking extremes of events," he said of the most recent drought and floods.
Rodda knows the harshness of farm life all too well -- his neighbour hanged himself at the height of the drought and he has seen many young men walk away from the job.
But a love of the Australian bush, known here as the "sunburnt country", prevails through the droughts and flooding rains, says Laurie.
"It's amazing, the old human mind, it's got a great way of shutting things out, getting up and getting going again, and if people can do it financially then I think they'll try," he said.
"It's a wonderful lifestyle, it's a wonderful industry to be involved in. But it really does have its frustrating times."
earlier related report
Sandbagging was underway in some villages in Victoria, where weeks of floods have affected as much as one-third of the state, with swollen rivers overflowing in 75 towns and flooding some 1,770 properties.
"We know that this is the most significant flooding in the north west of Victoria since records began... about 130 years ago," a spokeswoman for the State Emergency Service told AFP.
"We are still on alert for towns in the north of the state."
Floodwaters which national broadcaster ABC described as a moving "inland sea" covering an area 90 kilometres (56 miles) long and 40 kilometres wide, were threatening towns around Swan Hill, some 300 kilometres northwest of Melbourne.
"In the actual Swan Hill township itself, we are very confident that the levee system around the town is built to a very high grade and will protect the township," Mayor Greg Cruickshank told ABC radio.
But rural and outlying areas "will have significant amount of inundation through them," he said.
While thousands of people around the state have been urged to evacuate, emergency services warned that those people who choose to remain on their properties in the rural areas could be stranded by the floods.
"A number of these communities will be isolated for days as this huge amount of floodwater comes through," SES spokesman Kevin Monk said.
Eastern Australia has been lashed by torrential rains triggered by La Nina, a weather system associated with cyclones, which caused massive floods that devastated Queensland and spread south to New South Wales.
After surging torrents of dirty brown water flooded an area the size of France and Germany combined in Queensland -- killing more than 30 people and leaving a massive trail of destruction -- more floods developed in Victoria.
As the recovery and clean-up continues in Queensland, hundreds continued the search for the missing from violent flash floods which swept houses and cars into churning waters in the Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane.
Nine people are still missing after the floods which tore through towns such as Toowoomba and Grantham on January 10.
About 400 police were involved in search and clean-up efforts on Saturday and Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale said the strain of the extended crisis was telling.
"I think people are tired now, they're fragile and there's a lot of issues in regards money and support," he told ABC.
The floods which shut down Brisbane, the country's third largest city, also dumped tonnes of debris -- including cars, parts of buildings, and boats -- into the Brisbane River which the navy was Saturday working to clear.
As the waters recede in many areas of Queensland, the 75,000-strong city of Rockhampton, which was almost entirely isolated by floods earlier this month, is expected to soon have its air link back.
Some three weeks after Rockhampton airport's runway disappeared under water, daytime flights will resume on Monday after all major repairs and fencing work has been completed, officials said.
But the floodwaters are expected to remain in much of Victoria for days.
"We are still experiencing river peaks so that's going to obviously increase the amount of time," the SES spokeswoman said. "But in low-lying areas where there is flood waters, they can hang around for weeks."
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