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Last Updated: Monday, 6 November 2006, 14:49 GMT
Living with Australia's drought
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Goulburn

Goulburn resident
Residents in Goulburn are living with strict water rations

Goulburn in New South Wales is Australia's oldest inland city.

But when it comes to dealing with chronic water shortages it offers an alarming glimpse of the future.

A town of some 22,000 people, situated about two-and-half hours south of Sydney, it has been coping with severe water restrictions for the past five years.

With the town in the grip of Australia's worst drought in a century - there has been no significant rainfall in Goulburn since January and not a single drop in October - residents are confronted with all manner of water-related prohibitions.

All use of town water outside is banned, which includes hosing the garden, washing the car, and filling or topping up swimming pools or spas.

Households are only allowed to consume 150 litres per person per day.

If they exceed that target, they are faced with hefty fines. Bills are already soaring. Wardens patrol the streets on the look-out for "water louts" (residents who illegally use their hoses).

The town's streets, avenues and cul-de-sacs have become a sun-dried suburbia, a scorched landscape of parched lawns and dying plants and flowers.

Joanne Godbar
Obviously with the showering, we have to time the shower
Joanne Godbar stands with a stopwatch

Dusty cars sit unwashed on the driveways.

Rugby teams have to cut back on their training because the ground is so hard.

There are even fears that the cricket season will have to be cancelled by the New Year unless there is a break in the drought.

So no wonder Joanne Godbar is standing in her bathroom posed with a stopwatch, looking like the starter in an Olympics 100 metres final rather than a mother-of-two.

Her daughter is just about to take a shower, and Joanne is making sure that she does not spend more than five minutes under the water.

"Obviously with the showering, we have to time the shower," says Joanne. "You have to be really careful with the washing machine. Clothes that aren't too dirty just go back in the drawer. And then there's a garden. Well, we haven't got a garden any more. We've just accepted the fact that we will never again have a nice green lush lawn."

The scale of the problem facing Goulburn is clear at Pejar Dam, one of the town's main reservoirs.

It is an empty bowl, with just 2% of its capacity. Even the small amount of water that is resting on the bottom is impractical to use. You would lose too much through evaporation by transporting it into town.

Every four days a farmer in Australia is committing suicide. I haven't contemplated that myself, but it destroys my soul
Farmer Charlie Prell

A sign by the side of the reservoir says that boating is banned - a glaring statement of the obvious.

"We'd be a good 10 metres under water where we standing now," explained Greg Finlayson, Manager of Water Services at the local council.

"For the past two years we've been under the most severe water restrictions in Australia, and possibly the western world."

"During the winter, the water consumption has been cut in half. During the summer, the residents and business are using just a quarter of what they used to consume."

Falling income

Travel further down the road, and you come to Gundowringa farm. The Prell family has been farming this land for four generations, but fears it might have to leave if the rain does not come soon.

At this time of the year, the farm should be a dreamy picture of lush rolling hills. But it has been starved of water, and the bleached landscape is dying.

Pejar Dam
One of Goulburn's main reservoirs is dry

The family has kept an accurate measure of monthly rainfall since 1895. In October, for the first time ever, there was not a single drop of rain.

Charlie Prell took me for a tour of the farm, driving through dried-out river beds and showing me his bedraggled sheep and cattle.

The farm's income stream has dropped by 50%, and the family has had to sell-off a third of its land to make ends meet.

Last year, sheep commanded a price of A$40-50 a head. Now it has plummeted to A$10-15 a head.

The price has fallen because of a glut in the market. Farmers are selling off their sheep at bargain basement prices because they cannot afford to feed them through the summer.

"Every four days a farmer in Australia is committing suicide," he says. "I haven't contemplated that myself, but it destroys my soul."

Contingency plans

Many businesses have been forced to totally reinvent the way they operate to deal with the water shortage.

Dad's Car Wash is a case in point. With cars lined up bumper to bumper, it is doing a roaring trade - which comes as no surprise, since it is the only place in Goulburn right now where you can get your car washed.

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Had it not invested A$100,000 in a recycling plant which allows it to re-use grey water, the business would have faced ruin.

"The place would probably have lasted six months," according to owner Jeff Hayward. "So it really was a case of do or die. A$100,000 is a lot of money, but we employ 10 people so it was not just me that was going to be affected but the staff as well. So we really thought we must do it."

Painful though the process has been, Goulburn is learning to cope with its severe water restrictions, and people seem to deal with them with a combination of resilience and resignation.

The local council claims the town may be in better shape than other Australian cities, for the simple reason that over the course of five rain-starved years it has become adept at tackling the problem.

Still, if the drought continues, the water crunch will only get worse.

A contingency plan is already in place to transport water into the town by the truckload - a task that would require 40 trucks a day, at a cost of A$1m a week.

The worrying question for Goulburn - and indeed, communities all over the world: Is this the new normal?


SEE ALSO
Australia drought sparks suicides
19 Oct 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Australian PM warning on drought
13 Oct 06 |  Business

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