Worst Drought in a Century Hurting Australian Farmers

Hope Hamashige in Sydney, Australia
for National Geographic News
November 8, 2007

November on Rod Chalmers' farm in Wakool, Australia, shouldn't look like this.

It's springtime, and the wheat fields should be green and waist-high instead of mostly dead.

There are no sheep are in sight either. The animals were sold long ago, because there is no grass for them to graze on.

Chalmers is among many farmers whose crops are withering in an unusual spring heat, following one of the warmest and driest winters on record.

In the seventh year of a crippling drought, much of Australia is in an unprecedented water crisis. The Big Dry, as Australians have dubbed the weather, is the worst in a century and has forced water restrictions on an entire nation. (Related: "New Australia Mining Boom Taking Toll on Outback Life" [September 26, 2007].)

But for the farmers, the consequences have been especially dire. (See photos of drought-affected farms.)

With 65 percent of the Australia's viable land declared in drought by the government, thousands have walked away from their farms in recent years. Those that stayed saw earnings dive an average of 70 percent last year because of drought-related losses.

In Wakool, located 495 miles (797 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Sydney, the number of dairy farms has dwindled from 16 to 5.

Chalmers took a hit of $200,000 Australian (about $187,000 U.S.) last year. As he heads into summer, 75 percent of the grain crop has already failed, and he is expecting to lose money again this year.

"Its hard to figure out whether we are going to be okay or not," Chalmers said. "We're trying to figure out now at what point the debt becomes unmanageable."

Dried-Up Rivers

Rain—and a lot of it—is the only thing that is going to turn things around for troubled farmers.

Continued on Next Page >>




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