Flooding and drought in Australia

The world is being updated with the terrible floods that are taking place in Queensland Australia (e.g. see the coverage on EuroNews; and on WaterLink International). The figures being quoted are horrendous with flood depths of 10 metres in some places – and an area under water equal to the land areas of France and Germany combined.

My story about Australia though is more personal. Of course it’s not on such a mammoth scale but it is equally alarming – and only confirms the knife edge of sustainability on which Australia exists.

We begin at the end of September last year. I spent a month with my wife in Western Australia exploring both the North and the South of this sparsely populated but massive state (I traversed nearly half of Australia). Much of our month was spent with relatives and friends in the vicinity of Perth (where around 75 percent of the State’s residents). We also flew North to Carnarvon, about 1000 km away, which is a small town at the estuary of the Gascoyne river. We had been to Carnavon before and enjoyed its small town community style. The town is based on fishing and growing vegetables and fruit; bananas, grapes, avocados to name but a few. Market gardening as we call it – or truck farming to our US colleagues – is ideal in this area, as the Gasgoyne river that only flows for a about a hundred days a year. It also has an associated underground system which gives rise to an easily extractable aquifer with much greater flows than on the surface. This leads the locals to describe the Gascoyne as being an ‘upside down’ river.

Whilst in Carnarvon, as my brother-in-law is responsible for small business development support in the area, we were able to visit a number of these growers. Inevitably we discussed the availability of water. They said they were all hoping for what they called a ‘monsoon event’ this summer. The level of the aquifer was very low and wouldn’t last another season without replenishment. It was only at this point that I realised that much of the North of Australia relies on already unreliable – and increasingly unreliable – monsoon events. (Even in India the monsoon cannot be relied upon as it once was…)

Anyway, the aim of our visit was to recoveran earlier trip into ‘the bush’ when we had gotten stranded hundreds of kilometres from the nearest road station – with a broken 4X4 – and had to be rescued by the RAC (albeit only after spending the day sweltering in 45C temperatures for the day!). For this second attempt we had arranged to stay at a number of isolated homesteads. Our first overnight stay was at Bridgemia Station, just past Gascoyne Junction (Population 46) – at the junction of the Gascoyne and Lyons rivers – located about 100 miles by dirt road from Carnarvon.

We were staying in the shearers’ cottages which – since they don’t now keep any sheep, only cattle – can easily be rented. The cottages were situated on the edge of the dried-up river, overlooking the river junction. Clearly there had been significant flows in the past. The rivers had cut an attractive depression with beautiful ‘gum trees’ along its banks – and an attractive area of shade in mile upon mile of arid red bush.

The weather was a pleasantly warm early spring day (October). Little did we imagine that in just over two months from our visit, on 20 December, the Austalian Broadcasting Corporation would be reporting that:

‘Fruit and vegetable crops have been destroyed and cattle have drowned, as the Gascoyne River in Western Australia reached its highest level on record. More than 100 people have been evacuated and bulldozers have been working constantly to re-enforce levee banks around the town of Carnarvon.’

At Bridgema Station, our host Lachlan McTaggart was airlifted from the top of a rainwater tank – even though this was some good distance from the river, and on the flat bush – where water depths were estimated to be over 17 metres. The 1,370 head of cattle in the holding paddocks were all drowned. The townhouse in nearby Gascoyne Junction, where in the past we have eaten and which we noted was up for sale (at just over A$1million), was literarily ‘washed away’.

Clearly these events are poignant for me knowing the area and its arid nature. And yet what is amazing is that the present crisis (located about 4,000 km away) on the other side of the country seems to have completely extinguished the world’s interest in this area’s worst recorded weather event.

Such things appear to be becoming commonplace. And, of course, one is also forced to ask, yet again, whether we should regard it as an effect of global change – whether natural or manmade in cause…

Update (15/11/2016): Featured image added from this source.

Roger Ford

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