Jeremy Smith.

While local drought-affected communities are declaring a climate emergency, present proposals to mitigate the impacts of drought fail to address the real crisis. They do not recognise that this drought is not just another variation on ‘normal’ conditions, but a step towards a new climate. Radical and comprehensive planning and action are required.

The Armidale Express stated on its front page of 24 October, ‘There was wild cheering in the council chamber, and every councillor took a bow, as Armidale Regional Council declared a climate emergency’. The motion called on the community to adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The need for urgent action at all levels of government was noted.

So my local community, like some others, is finally waking up to the fact that this drought is not just another drought, albeit the worst ever. After this drought, there will soon be another, and another, probably yet worse. The climate has changed, and continues to change.

Of course, there will always be wet years and dry years, but all the data and evidence show that we are in a process of long-term change, not just variation around a steady norm. Every set of rainfall figures going back a few decades, including my own, clearly shows a progressive drop in precipitation. This past couple of years, we have seen the latest step in what has already been a long progression. Temperature data show rises in maximum values of some two degrees just in the last four decades. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that these trends will slow, let alone reverse.

It is no surprise that locals are realising the magnitude and continuing nature of our climate crisis. Every chance conversation reverts to some aspect of drought – water saving measures in the home, garden devastation, invading wildlife, welfare donations. The word ‘unprecedented’ is being grossly over-used.

We live daily with smoke from bushfires in all directions which have been burning for months and which cannot be extinguished until good rain falls. No such rain appears in any forecast, certainly not for the rest of this year. The largest fire, the so-called Bees Nest, is today reported to have burned out an astonishing 111,262 hectares. Fire-fighting helicopters pass overhead, dangling buckets, day after day. In a ‘normal’ year, the fire season would barely have begun by now.

Local rivers are dry, trees are dying, and the town already under Level 5 water restrictions is projected to run out of water totally early next year. There is virtually no green feed in the paddocks, many of which have now been completely de-stocked. Only a few local businesses are prospering, like the laundromats used increasingly to save people’s own water supplies, and crash repairers fixing cars which have met desperate roaming kangaroos. The economic backbone of the region, agriculture, is broken, and most other enterprises are suffering as a result.

Hard decisions confront us

Yet the real nature of this climate crisis, faced by communities across a vast swathe of Australia, apparently goes unrecognised by high levels of government.

The various proposals I have seen to mitigate the impacts of drought on individuals or businesses (farming and otherwise), and to address dwindling water supplies to towns, ecosystems, and farms alike, all look like Band-Aid measures. I say this, because they all seem to be trying to sustain present systems in the unstated and irrational expectation that this drought will end.

A rational policy needs to recognise that we must go beyond propping up towns, farms, businesses, and lifestyles. We must recognise that the future is going to be different, and plan to make the best of it. In a decade or two, when drought has progressed further, what will be the best use of land in our varied drought-affected regions. And what, in the broadest interest, should be discouraged or prohibited?

Which of our small country towns can we sustain, as their economy inevitably shrinks – and which should be evacuated and abandoned? How should we best utilise the diminishing resource of rainfall. Which of many competing uses – keeping rivers flowing and their ecosystems alive, maintaining irrigated agriculture and water-hungry mining, keeping towns going – need to be downsized to allow the others to continue?

Some present proposals might actually do more harm than good. There are negative as well as positive consequences of building dams, sucking additional water from aquifers, and bailing out marginal farmers.

We desperately need an overall vision and plan, for a long-term future. It is an enormous task, but an enormously important one. Is it beyond us? There are few present signs that it is even being recognised. But if we do not approach this vast problem properly, a vast catastrophe will come.

Jeremy Smith lectured in the broad field of biogeography at the University of New England for 25 years, before becoming a Station Leader at several Australian Antarctic stations. He has been retired in Armidale NSW since 2011. This article first appeared in John Menadue’s blog Pearls & Irritations of 29 October 2019.
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