Page last updated at 17:08 GMT, Monday, 1 September 2008 18:08 UK
'Big Dry' turns farms into deserts

As Australia experiences its worst drought in 100 years, farmers and residents across Australia's "food bowl" - the Murray Darling Basin - describe how it has affected their lives.

Lindsay PointMoorockRenmarkMilduraColeamballyBenalla


Mikaela Saunders
I looked around and the vegetation was all dying.

The Murray River brings life to our area. We need it for our drinking water, and the irrigators need it to water their crops and supply our food.

We have a lot of tourism here because of the mighty Murray.

But recently we visited Wallpolla Island, right next to the Murray River. As we arrived, we crossed onto the island where water used to block the way. When we went, there were rocks on the ground where the water should have been very deep. Sadly it had dried up because of the terrible drought.

I looked around and the vegetation was all dying. The biggest tree in the area, a River Red Gum, estimated to be over 300 years old, looked dreadful!

A River Red Gum tree.

Almost all of the trees were dead or dying and, therefore, the wildlife was scarce. Birds used to fly over and breed in this area. Now all the vegetation had shrivelled up.

This area needs emergency watering. But I think it is too late... There are many other places along the Murray just like this one. In some of these areas the drought has won!

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Beverley Rose
Farmers are very proud people. They would just like to be able to get on with what they do best - farm.

My family came to Coleambally Irrigation Area in 1963, from Victoria where we worked on a dairy farm. My late husband and his father drew this block of land in a ballot. We were 20th Century pioneers.

Schools, the shopping centre, the medical centre and other community centres are all in jeopardy if this drought continues. We have 0% allocation of irrigation water and water is astronomically expensive.

There is some drought assistance but not everyone is eligible and not everyone wishes to be given a handout. Farmers are very proud people. They would just like to be able to get on with what they do best - farm.

The only rice crops being grown in the Coleambally area now are those on the big bore blocks [a borehole is a shaft drilled into the ground for extracting water]. Our irrigations farms are set up to run water, not to harvest it - so we have had to put down domestic bores so we can give water to our cattle.

The government is in the water market for "water for rivers" and "water for the environment" but not - it seems - "water for food."

Dry cattle dam

It is buying up water and water entitlements from willing sellers. Older farmers - who have spent their savings hand feeding and watering animals - have sold the water so they can retire.

When it comes to the younger generation, women have gone back to work if they can find it and men have gone to the mines.

Will they ever come back to work on the farms? What will happen to our communities? Rain is the only answer.

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Marg Waters
We learned to use 'grey water', which is water collected from washing machines and even the kitchen sink.

I live in the small rural town of Benalla.

All of the rivers in this area rise in the nearby mountains. These flow into larger rivers and eventually into the Murray River. Our main river in Benalla is the Broken River.

We have experienced many years of drought, but for us it has been particularly bad in the last four years. Many seasonal creeks in this area have not flowed for a number of years.

The summer of 2006/07 was the worst in living memory. We just did not have water here. Creeks and rivers that normally flow dried up! This included those that supply our town's water.

We learned to use 'grey water', which is water collected from washing machines, the shower, and even the kitchen sink, to put on gardens. Many people still collect the water. A new industry emerged with businesses actually setting up watering systems in home gardens to continue this practice.

Lake Eildon

Water is also pumped from the Broken River for farm needs. This is not irrigation, but a means for keeping stock alive. If water is not available then the crops fail - and livelihoods are ruined.

With so much doubt about getting water many farmers have downsized their crop or stock.

Buying stock and grain is expensive which means food has also become quite expensive.

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Paul Martin
I am a positive person and still feel we can make it through the tough times, but these are the toughest I have faced.

We do not get enough rain to grow a crop like almonds. The summers are very dry and hot. The trees here would die without irrigation and I rely almost entirely on irrigation water from the Murray River.

Last year we received less than half our allocation. It was our first big water cut and I had to buy temporary water from farmers upstream. These farmers made more by selling their temporary water to me than they could by growing cash crops of wheat or cattle feed.

This enabled me to finish my crop and grow my young trees. But it also sent me into debt with the bank.

The drought has sapped a lot of money, buying water, putting new drip irrigation in place, replanting old trees with small trees that will use less water in the first few years. The cost is eating into our bank loan, and I have to think about using the reserves we put aside for retirement.

Map showing 2008 rainfall in the Murray-Darling river region

I really don't know when it will end. I am happy to put money into buying water and increasing my water-use efficiency for one year. But we are now facing a second year.

I feel under stress at times. It makes me a little irritable, which can affect the family. Sleep is not so sound any more.

I am generally a positive person and still feel we can make it through the tough times, but these are the toughest I have faced in my 36 years of farming.

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Sheridan Alm
We are all going through extremely difficult times financially and emotionally

I grow winegrape and citrus in Riverland, South Australia.

My crop production is dependent on the Murray Darling basin and I extract water from the Yatco Lagoon, a large and shallow backwater upstream.

There are a number of irrigators here, all family businesses, farming winegrape, citrus, olive, vegetable and fodder crops.

The Yatco lagoon community and landholders have been significantly affected by the drought for years, through reduced water allocations and increasing water salinity levels.

So in 2006 we formed the Yatco Wetland Landcare Group as it became increasingly clear that sustainable farming in this community was dependent on the management of our ecological assets.

We have put in place various measures such as building an earthen bank to achieve evaporative water savings - this was one short term measure to combat drought. But we also have other plans which could lead to big improvements in the health of these wetlands.

Yatco lagoon

Hopefully these will 'drought proof' this River Murray community and its associated industries.

The project has given the Moorook township something to be very proud of in these tough times.

We are all going through extremely difficult times financially and emotionally, but we are all determined to improve the general health of the wetland for the next generation.

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Paul Kennedy
Our houseboat bookings have been reduced by almost 50%

I am the owner/manager of a houseboat hire company, Customs House Houseboats.

We are located on the River Murray and are dependent on the Murray-Darling system for our domestic and commercial water supply and for our houseboats to be able to travel up and down the river.

Our water levels here are currently maintained. But further downstream the water levels are much lower and every time the media print reports and photos of these low levels, the general public and our future hirers think this applies to the river as a whole.

A large percentage of our repeat hirers are farmers. As the drought has affected their crops and income, either by low rainfall and or reduced water for irrigation, these people do not have the money to spare on a houseboat holiday.

Our houseboat bookings have been reduced by almost 50% and the income of our general store is down about 50% on previous years.
There are still tourists coming to the area but we are definitely seeing less of them.

Houseboat on the Murary Darling
Water levels are currently maintained in the Kennedy's stretch of river.
Our lives are quieter and the phone doesn't ring as often. But on the up side, we have caught up with our maintenance work, created new advertising plans and painted the premises.

We are lucky that our landscape remains unaffected at present. If the drought continues, this will certainly change.

The future is unknown, but we remain optimistic. It will rain again!

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Lake Hume
Lake Hume is at less than 50 percent capacity
I live on a family farm inherited from my husband's grandfather. We haven't been hit so bad yet.

But not far from here, in Albury, there is a major water shortage at Lake Hume. It's at less than 50% of its capacity.

There's a paddle steamer called the Cumberoona there, and people used to pay to go for a ride up and down the water. The water is so low now that they can barely float it. It's sitting high and dry on the banks of the lake. I do not know what people are doing - many might be reconsidering their futures.

The drought has other implications too. The wombats have come out of the nearby national parks because of the lack of feed. Unfortunately they have moved into areas such as our cropping paddock, and along the watercourses, in search of food.

Cumberoona paddle steamer
The Cumberoona paddle steamer has been stranded on the banks
This is quite a problem when they take up residence in the middle of a paddock which you are trying to drive machinery over. The wombats are a protected species so we are not permitted to do anything about removing them either.

Every living thing seems to be affected.

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'Big Dry' turns farms into deserts
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