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It’s a dry argument

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Friday, 8 July 2005

Last month Australian farmers asked the prime minister for rain. Then many sowed their crops in the dust on the forecasts of meteorologists. It was a greater power than the government or the Bureau of Meteorology that brought the recent rains, but legislation still has a role to play in “drought-proofing” our continent.

Government support for farmers during the most recent drought, and future droughts, is important, but we still really need a realistic approach to farming in Australia.

Having lived most of his three and a half years in country Victoria, my son still gets very excited about rain. This month, he and his younger brother have joyously given their gumboots a good workout. For them, a lack of water is their reality. And lack of water is a reality in Australia. Not just now, but always. Australians have never really dealt well with this fact.


But for farmers and rural communities, the crisis of drought has been constant. Not for the last nine, but the last 100 odd years.

When I first arrived in rural Victoria, I attended a series of talks on sustainable land management and housing. Water and its availability were regular themes.

On one of those Tuesday nights, a scientist passed on a message that was simple, yet profound.

“Perhaps Australia is always in drought,” he said. He suggested we shouldn’t talk about the Australian climate as having average rainfall, and then years of drought. This approach over the last century had not served us well. He said it is more productive to regard the Australian landscape as being in a constant state of drought, with occasional years of above-average rainfall.

This would mean that instead of just managing the risk of drought, we are directed to farm and plan progressively to yield successful outcomes - even in very dry seasons.

In most parts of Australia, there is simply not enough rain to meet our demands. Our agriculture sector is ploughing away unsustainably, because in the long-term there will always be more dry than wet times.


While we haven’t been living a lie, there is a pretty big half-truth we’re unwilling to deal with. This country does not have enough rainfall to appropriately support many of our farming communities in a sustainable way.

Drought is a part of Australian life. The Bureau of Meteorology says Australia is “drought prone”. It is a gentle way of saying that drought is the most economically costly climatic phenomenon in Australia. The droughts of 1982-83 had a major impact on the national economy.

Farming, and working the land, is a risky business. But in Australia, a commitment to long-term farming along modern agricultural lines is like backing the longest odds in the Melbourne Cup.

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First published in the Herald Sun on July 4, 2005.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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