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Farmers on WA's South Coast are battling record-low rainfall amid long-term trend

By Eliza Borrello and Mark Bennett, Sunday July 26, 2020 - 10:08 EST
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Annette Cake (left), from Gairdner, says community support is vital. - ABC

With Cold Chisel's Flame Trees wafting over the crowd and fairy lights festooned on the tin roof, the Boxwood Hill Sporting Complex was giving off all the right "country Friday night" vibes.

If you hadn't read the event flyer, you could have been forgiven for thinking the evening was an advertisement for life in regional Australia.

But the 350 or so local farmers and their families had gathered for a night billed "Operation Care".

"As a community, we are hurting," read the Facebook invitation.

"Drought and COVID-19 has impacted us all greatly."

One of the event organisers, Rick Chadwick, wouldn't say exactly what prompted the event in the small farming hamlet, about 450 kilometres south-east of Perth, but said enough to suggest it was dark.

"There was an incident a couple of weeks ago, or three weeks ago, and I'm not going to say any more details about it, but to say it put a bloke's life in serious jeopardy and this is one of the reasons, get people talking," he said.

"Probably a bit like Beyond Blue or something like that."

Low rainfall breaks records around the South Coast

A map released by the Bureau of Meteorology earlier this month would be cause for concern for farmers on Western Australia's South Coast, according to spokesman Neil Bennett.

A big red blotch in the south-eastern corner of WA denotes the "lowest rainfall on record".

"When you're looking at the rainfall maps and you see all of that red area in there, it is pretty alarming," Mr Bennett said.

"Certainly for the folks that are farming that region along the South Coast from Albany across to Esperance and a little bit further to the north as well, through into the southern parts of the Great Southern.

"Some of the rainfall deficiencies that we're seeing now are some of the lowest on record and the record's going back to the 1900s, temperature records from 1910."

Mr Bennett described the situation as "something that's sort of become a silent amount of rainfall deficit".

"Because everybody is concentrating on the eastern states and the Murray-Darling, but those [WA] folks have been doing it tough for a long time now," he said.

Worst-hit areas from Albany to Esperance

Asked to name particularly dry towns, Mr Bennett listed Gnowangerup, Ravensthorpe, Salmon Gums, Grass Patch and Scaddan.

Mr Bennett said the bad news for farmers was that the records pointed to a long-term trend.

"Really since the 1970s, the South West of WA — which includes that South Coast region — has seen a drop off in rainfall, compared to the period 1900 to 1970," he said.

"[From] the 2000s, we're seeing a drop-off of about 25 per cent to the 1900-to-1969 average.

"We don't anticipate every single year will get drier and drier — there will be some variations in that — but the trend overall for the last 20 to 30 years is for a drying trend in the rainfall."

Asked if what the region was experiencing was a climate change effect, Mr Bennett said it was.

"One of the reasons for that drying trend is an increase in pressures across the region. We're looking at more high-pressure systems and fewer low-pressure systems and cold fronts, and that is a signature of a warming atmosphere and a signature of climate change."

On the bright side, Mr Bennett noted local farmers were developing new techniques to cope with lower rainfall levels.

Farmers turn to technology to 'drought-proof' land

One such farmer was Aaron Davis, who farms at Gairdner, five hours' drive south-east of Perth and not far from the town that hosted the Friday night gathering.

He has invested upwards of $110,000 installing a desalination unit in a bid to "drought-proof" his farm.

"Just with the lack of water over the last few years, dams going dry and we know there's underground water here but it's just been salty," he said.

"At the moment, it can do 2,500 litres an hour to turn the salt water into pure fresh water."

Given his farm's location, Mr Davis said he never envisioned it would not have enough fresh water.

'It's one of the last things you'd have thought … close to the south coast."

Mr Davis said his desalination plant was definitely attracting local attention.

"Since the word's sort of gone out, that I've got this and people are starting to ask questions, so yeah, people are starting to get interested."

Partners act as a 'sounding board'

Back at Boxwood Hill Sporting Complex, Rick Chadwick described the conditions as "probably the worst drought in 100 years".

Several farmers' wives welcomed the opportunity for their husbands to get together and "get all their emotions out on the table", as Chelsea Stanich from Gnowellen described it.

"I know when the men are happy and when they're not happy [about the rain] … I just try to stay positive and try not to compare farm to farm," added Brodie Baum.

Emma, a teacher, shared an insight into the emotional support role farmers' wives play.

"It's quite difficult because you always have to be the sounding board, plus the person that gives the positive feedback," she said.

"I'm always trying to say to Alex, it's going to rain, it's going to rain and when it doesn't rain it's a bit [hard] … to try and keep that positivity up."

Neil Bennett from the weather bureau was not offering hope on that front, saying there may be a shift in this year's conditions but it was not guaranteed.

"Until you can get the weather itself, you can't really say for sure just what the systems will be delivering to you in the next month, two months," he said.

Despite the bleak season, one woman at the gathering, who did not give her name, said "hope" was what the community had to hold on to.

"It will rain eventually and when it does come, we'll really appreciate it," she said.


© ABC 2020

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