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Sunday, 21 July, 2002, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Drought ruins Australian farmers
NSW farm
Farmers drive long distances to keep livestock alive
Many farmers in Australia are facing financial ruin as they try to cope with the worst drought in almost a decade.

Areas of Queensland and New South Wales have not seen a drop of rain in two years, and some are experiencing the lowest rainfall since records began in 1900.


Freak storm in Sydney, January 2001
Australia's wild weather

  • Dec 1999: Cyclone Bernie rips through north-west Queensland
  • Dec 1999: Snow fell on Mount Hotham in Victoria's Great Diving Range over Christmas
  • Jan 2002: Floods in New South Wales
  • Jan 2002: Hailstones the size of bowling balls hit Kingscliff in northern New South Wales
  • Jan 2002: Electrical storms and temperatures up to 45C in tropical Queensland


  • The drought is the latest example of wild weather variations which have seen summer snow, hailstones the size of bowling balls, and a tropical cyclone in the past year.

    Forecasters, who are blaming the El Nino effect, say the drought could last for another year.

    Some farmers have been forced to sell most of their sheep and cattle, with crops of animal food diminishing as creeks and dams dry up.

    Others have turned thousands of sheep and cattle onto the outback roads to search for food in a desperate attempt to keep them alive.

    Bill Powell, a farmer from Walgett in north-western NSW, said the drought had forced him to consider leaving the property his family have worked for four generations.

    Instead, he intends to sell his emaciated cattle at a discount of up to 70%, with the hope of restocking his herd sometime in the future.

    "It's time to cut losses," he said.


    We're sitting on the edge of a calamity. This is a personal nightmare for families and communities

    NSW farmer Graham McDonald
    Justin Smirk, an economist with the Westpac Bank, said the fall in farm incomes could shave 1% off Australia's economic growth in 2002-2003, equivalent to about $2bn.

    New South Wales is offering subsidies of about 25,000 Australian dollars ($14,000) to pay for water or move cattle.

    But for sheep farmer Mick Pearce and others, it is too little, too late.

    Mr Pearce, who has already reduced his flock from 4,000 to 350, said: "It's too late for me. I've sent most of my sheep to the sale yard."

    New South Wales farmer Doug Ridley drives a tanker 10km to haul water for his sheep.

    'Calamity's edge'

    The Associated Press news agency reports that, from the air, Ridley's farm near Condobolin, 460 kilometres (290 miles) northwest of Sydney, is a patchwork quilt of parched brown fields. It has had virtually no rainfall since February and suffered a prolonged dry spell last year.

    Doug Ridley
    New South Wales farmer Doug Ridley drives a tanker 10km to haul water for his sheep
    "Without water you can't do much," said Mr Ridley.

    "Stock tend to die. You can half-feed them, but you can't half-water them."

    Neighbour Graham McDonald, who has been watching his 2,400 hectares (6,000 acres) of wheat and oats wither and die.

    "We're sitting on the edge of a calamity," he said.

    "This is a personal nightmare for families and communities."

    Extreme weather conditions are nothing new in Australia, El Nino or no El Nino. The country's national anthem even describes a land "of droughts and flooding plains".

    But the intensity of the current drought has taken farmers by surprise after a relatively prosperous year.

    Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, himself a farmer, said rural communities were just beginning to pick themselves up after being hit by floods a few years ago.

    "It's an emerging tragedy," he said.

    "It's immensely frustrating for someone in my position to have seen a significant recovery come off the boil so quickly."

    See also:

    18 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
    16 May 02 | Country profiles
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