02. The Emerging Legacy of Drought

The heavy price that endurance is now exacting from rural families
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Rural and remote Australia has recently emerged from one of the worst droughts on record. Rural communities are delighted that rain has finally fallen after years of struggling to survive and seeing so much hard work and financial progress blown away like soil on a hot summer’s wind. Despite some new optimism, all is not well – much is far from well. With the spotlight removed and sympathy now having moved away from people in the bush, the banks are making their move, worse still, families are only now finally breaking down and marriages ending after years of being under strain.

Dr John Ashfield
Cathie Bammann
Monica Dodd
Alison Hescock
Dr Tony Lian-Lloyd
Kay Matthias
Mary Retallack
Judy Wilkinson
For details of all interviewees who contributed to this project, click here

Flood Girls - abundant water for the first time! Photographer Katie Dopheide Victoria

Flood Girls – abundant water for the first time! Photographer Katie Dopheide Victoria

Thinkabout Talkabout
Dr John Ashfield
The drought years of the mid-2000s took a heavy toll on farmers, pastoralists, grape growers, and other agricultural producers. And the toll wasn’t just financial. Many people went into a state of chronic stress; and depression and anxiety were commonplace. Perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of people’s experience was their feeling of powerlessness: watching years of hard work wither away – along with hopes and plans of an intended future. But there were also the extra borrowings – to keep stock fed and alive, and the perennial risk of sowing another crop only to see it fail and not cover the high input costs – let alone make any kind of profit.

These were very difficult and disheartening times which saw no small number of people leave the land. But the legacy of the drought is only now being fully realised: husbands and wives that stayed together focussed only on survival, are now separating squeezed dry by the pressure and disillusionment of it all.

It’s a real tragedy to see people go their separate ways having endured so much together. If only we could learn from this – if government could learn from this. It was politically popular to be seen to be helping people in drought affected communities while it remained in the news. But once the drought gave way to the first less than disastrous season, government mental health support programs were soon withdrawn, with little understanding or care for the fact that people would be affected long after the intensity of the immediate drought years.

After the fires several years ago and again in 2012 in Port Lincoln in South Australia, and more recently in Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales, in which people died and there was a huge loss of property – farms, houses, stock, and implement, it was amazing to see how effectively communities mobilised to fight the fires and to help and support each other. Even more amazing is how so many people, though having lost so much – whole farms with all their buildings, stock, and even houses were destroyed, showed so much resilience in picking themselves up and going on to rebuild their properties and their lives.

But how can we know what scars some of those people carry around inside them? The best we can do is remain vigilant and ensure that there’s no obstacles to seeking and finding appropriate assistance if and when any of them need it. Most will be fine, but a few will, for quite complex reasons, have to deal with how their experience has traumatised them and left very troubling memory traces.

What are the lessons from this situation? That there will usually be key local people that know what to do to provide the best support in their communities. And it is from them that government agencies always need to take the lead. Also, no matter how difficult situations like this are, people mostly need only to feel safe, to be kept informed, and for their basic needs to be met, for them to cope effectively. They also need to know that they will not be deserted once the drama of the immediate situation is resolved, because it is for long afterwards that people need timely, thoughtful, compassionate support.

First broadcast – Monday 8 April 2013

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