February 2007 in brief

Essays

Chloe Hooper

Take me to the river

Climate change in the Mallee

Twice a day, David Hill records the weather in the Mallee town of Warracknabeal, in north-western Victoria, for the Bureau of Meteorology. A tall, lean man with sandy orange hair and moustache, his weather station - latitude 36? 15 '41'' S, longitude 142? 24' 18'' E - is outside the Agricultural Machinery Museum. At 9 am and 3 pm he walks through a dry, dusty paddock where corellas have been scratching for seed. Raised above the ground is a white slatted box, paint peeling, padlocked and surrounded by chicken wire. It looks like a beehive, but is actually a temperature screen containing a wet-and-dry bulb thermometer, which shows the day's highest and lowest temperatures. Like some shaman of old, Hill estimates visibility, the height of the clouds, where the clouds are coming from, the direction of the wind and its speed in kilometres per hour. The bureau's customised record sheet also requires a description of "phenomena". Circle observation known to have occurred, it reads, before listing the following possibilities: Hail, Snow, Thunder heard, Frost, Dust storm, Mist, Haze, Smoke, Fog, Dew, Strong wind, Gale. Sometimes Hill circles four phenomena in the morning alone.

Then he must record the rainfall, or lack of it. The water gauge is a 30-centimetre aluminium tin set in the ground with a plastic beaker inside. As if in a Beckett sketch, Hill checks it each day, knowing there'll be no water. "It tried to rain last night," he explains, "but as the locals say, you could walk between the drops." These drops now barely register and that is how it's recorded: "trace". He believes some local children have never seen proper rain.

Inside the foyer of the museum, David Hill opens a ledger from 1969, the year the weather station opened, and says of the rainfall, "Those were the good old days." The ledger's blue pages are inscribed with neat copperplate. Victoria has about 30 manual climate stations, which are increasingly joining the ranks of the 70-plus automated stations as people such as Hill, who is 57, retire or move away. "Just like fish in a pond when it dries up, we're buggered," he says. "Once farmers are affected, towns are affected and then these small communities die in the backside."

The museum's display area is filled with wagons and harvesters and tractors from around the world. ("You can always tell who owned a certain tractor," Hill claims. "They walk in and cringe when they look at it.") The tractors, with their enormous wheels, give the visitor the sense they've shrunken and are walking through a maze of giant toys. The Mallee was named after the hardy mallee scrub that covered the region before settlement in the early twentieth century. In what was regarded as an epic battle in the cause of progress and putting the small man on the land, farmers were contractually obliged to clear as much land as fast as possible, using fire, winches, axes and horse-drawn logs. These brightly coloured machines of the '50s also pulled logs, then scrub rollers, then chains, obliterating any remaining native vegetation, and look so full of optimism you could imagine Doris Day was driving.

Leo Tellefson's family have been farming in the Mallee, near Donald, for a hundred years. "My father was given tax breaks to cut trees and I'm given tax breaks to plant them," he says. Like many of the pioneer's descendants, Tellefson, 56, is now battling chronic soil erosion and salinity, problems made worse by the lack of rain. He remembers droughts that endured for a year, perhaps two, but there was then a wet year afterwards. "There were always hot days, but not this continual dryness." Nor has he ever witnessed such a strange suite of what meteorologists now call ‘weather events'. For the first time, a frost last winter killed all his grass overnight, "every blade dead". There is now no moisture in the soil. On some parts of his farm, he has to switch his ute to 4WD setting, as the ground crumbles beneath him. Tellefson, a man of preternatural enthusiasm, has been trying to find ways to boost Donald's tourism: he plans to build a giant duck on the town's fringes, possibly funded by a series of tug-of-war contests. He recently visited Melbourne for a weekend and stayed in a hotel opposite the new Southern Cross Train Station. It rained, and it was painful watching so much water falling unharnessed from the multi-million-dollar roof.

As you travel further into the scorched country, you sense and see the multiplying nature of the drought. You pass over bridges with signs marking dried-up streams and creeks. Their flow is carved into the ground, but they are gone. Three hours from the Mallee, outside Echuca, farmer Max Marchetti, 32, showed me the site of a swamp which a decade ago was home to brolgas, pink-eared ducks, straw-necked ibis, parrots and "herds" of swans. In the 1982 drought, he sent his father's cattle there to drink. Murphy's Swamp, the sign over a dustbowl reads.

Marchetti was driving his truck back from a nearby abattoir after unloading stock. Although he isn't a regular churchgoer, he had an old prayer card of Jesus, its edges curling, stuck to the dashboard, "to give the driver some peace", with a tiny Australian flag on a toothpick tucked inside. "Our farm, our business, our family: that's our church."

Murphy's Swamp once irrigated 18 farms. It now irrigates three, including Marchetti's, but he has not seen a drop of water since June. Marchetti was "born and bred" on this land where, like a modern-day Old MacDonald, he farms cows, sheep, goats, pigs, geese and chickens. He has been trying to keep heritage breeds of pigs from becoming extinct, but the drought has suspended those ambitions. These days, he is just trying to keep his breeding stock alive, with little water in his dam, feeding costs rising to impossible heights and "not one blade of green feed on the property".

Malcolm Turnbull, the unofficial minister for water, told the National Press Club in November, "This year the inflows into the Murray River will be only 9% of the long-term average; half the previous all-time low." "By April," Turnbull claimed, "the mighty dams which have insulated us against the vagaries of the weather will be empty. The only water that will be available for communities and irrigators next year will be that which flows into the system over next winter and spring. There is ... a clear and present danger that the river will be dry before it finishes its course."

Max Marchetti wonders if his will be the last generation of farmers in this area. He already talks about his farm as a kind of museum. "I couldn't imagine my kids, if farming continues the way it is, becoming farmers. Most of the time, to tell you the truth, I keep the farm going to show them. I really want to show my kids a glimpse of it, and they can take it on or not, but I doubt very much they will."

During lunch in his farmhouse, where the roof had recently fallen in, Marchetti turns on the television and finds a Formula One race: speed, money, sex. In the midst of this desolation, they are like scenes from another planet. "If you can stop a man cutting down a tree," he says, staring at the images of waste on the screen, "why can't you stop this?" Marchetti and his wife have bought SingStar, a karaoke videogame, which they now take wherever they go, to have a sing-along. He'd heard of half-a-dozen farmers nearby suiciding in the last six months: "It's sad to think it happens because of the weather."

In a recent editorial in the Australian, those "hand-ring[ers]" trying to connect the drought to global warming are ordered to "take a cold shower": "Climate change must certainly be taken seriously but consideration must be based on scientific fact and rational research." For those parties interested, that science and research is here.

On 3 January, the Bureau of Meteorology released its Annual Climate Statement, with data gathered from "a country-wide network of about 100 high-quality, mostly rural observing stations" (it did not include Warracknabeal) and the Volunteer Rainfall Network, a group of more than 5000 Australians who provide the bureau with their rainfall measurements. The bureau announced that "Parts of Southeast Australia experienced their driest year on record, including key catchment areas which feed the Murray and Snowy Rivers, as did parts of the Western Australian coast, including Perth." Temperatures were again nearly half a degree above average, although this was our warmest spring on record, with temperatures 1.42? C above average, and for much of inland NSW it was "as warm or warmer than 2005", our hottest year on record. Paradoxically, in Australia's north-west, the weather was wetter and cooler, with a rain belt stretching from the Pilbara to the Nullarbor. The bureau's senior climatologist, Neil Plummer, says, "Most scientists agree this is part of an enhanced greenhouse effect."

Blair Trewin, from the bureau's National Climate Centre, told me that although an El Niño in the Pacific Ocean had been a dominant cause of the 2006 drought, with some Victorian regions having experienced nearly ten years of "rainfall anomalies", "we are now in unexplored territory." The bureau believes we are seeing the effects of climate change. Dr Trewin says they are less confident talking about other areas of the country, specifically the Murray Darling, in such terms, but that is the conclusion they are leaning towards.

The World Meteorological Organisation announced in December that initial estimates suggest 2006 was the sixth-hottest year since records commenced in 1861. (The ten hottest recorded years worldwide have taken place in the last 12 years.) The WMO's report makes for grim reading: record heatwaves in Australia, Brazil, Europe and the US; prolonged drought in Australia, parts of the Greater Horn of Africa, China, Brazil and the US; severe and historic flooding significantly damaging food stocks, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and leading to landslides; deadly typhoons and cyclones bringing economic losses of US$10 billion to China alone; a 20% depletion of the ozone layer over the Arctic, and the largest ever hole over the Antarctic (29.5 million square kilometres); sea ice declining at the rate of 8.59% per decade or 60,421 square kilometres per year.

Time was, even just a year ago, when sophisticated people, if they noticed the weather at all, thought it much too banal to talk about. But as every day brings news of melting glaciers, shrinking Greenland, coral bleaching, mammoth bushfires, cataclysms or portents of cataclysms, no other subject, including sport, can keep the weather out for long. The effects of global warming are exponential: for a long time, climatic changes seem negligible, then suddenly they appear apocalyptic. Britain's Meteorological Office is already predicting that 2007 will be the hottest year on record.

You would think, with the great song and dance Australians make about the bush, that its survival would be reason alone to make tackling climate change our first priority. Standing in parts of Victoria, the ground now looks blasted, like the site of a battle - which it once was. It was a great battle to clear these lands, one that took heroic labour. The frontier story is a story of surviving drought, and then the rain. The tale is cyclical, elemental. Of course it will rain again. But farmers wonder if it will ever rain again the way it used to. They fear the cycle is broken and with it, the story of the Bush. As Max Marchetti says, "The last ten years our rainfall has slowly diminished, but the last five have just been murder, like being shot at. Only nature can win."

Chloe Hooper
Chloe Hooper is the author of The Engagement, A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Tall Man.

Cover: February 2007

February 2007 in brief

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