Page last updated at 16:56 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

New South Wales rains raise hopes of end to drought

Forbes lake, NSW, Australia
Some children in Forbes have never seen rain fall so heavily

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, New South Wales

Since Christmas, parched areas of New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, have received their best rains in a decade, fuelling hopes the continent's worst drought in a century may finally be easing.

Near Forbes, a farming town 380km (240 miles) west of Sydney, vast tracts of desolate land have turned a splendid shade of green, while dry rivers and creeks have been revived.

"The impact of the rain has been fantastic. It has just really lifted the community and really lifted the environment," said Carissa Bywater, the general manager of the Forbes Shire council.

This oversees a town that has faced the dire prospect of running out of water, while the nearby Lachlan River almost stopped flowing.

Gary Johnston
Farmers are pretty resilient generally but I think everyone was at breaking point
farmer Gary Johnston

The region was buffeted by severe dust storms towards the end of last year, heaping further misery on a hard-pressed corner of the Australian outback.

A wave of mental illness has also emerged, while the population has shrunk amid the worst dry spell in memory.

For now, at least, residents and farmers awake to the sweet smell of moisture in the air as well as feeling lush grass under their feet, and even the lake in the centre of Forbes is full for the first time in years.

"There are kids here that are eight-to-10 years old that have never seen rain of any consequence," said farmer Gary Johnston, who owns a 3,000 hectare (7,413 acre) property a short drive from town.

"That tells you how dry it is. Farmers are pretty resilient generally but I think everyone was at breaking point and still are," said Mr Johnston.

"There are a lot of people in a lot of trouble."

Some farmers are daring to believe that the drought may finally be loosening its grip after the spectacular deluges that began on Christmas Day.

Looking up?

Trevor Smith, a livestock producer near Forbes, has studied climate records that date back to 1874 and believes they show that the recent rainfall patterns are a positive sign.

Forbes High School students, Australia
The students say the rain has cheered the local mood

"What has happened so far [this year] looks as though it might be the beginning of the end, but we are not out of this drought until we have a flood."

High on a hill overlooking Forbes, a quaint town that suffered sweeping floods in the 1950s, the local high school is awash with cautious hope that perhaps the worst of the drought is over.

"Seeing the children down at the lake with the water flowing over the road, it was like a dream," 17-year-old Nicole Buttress told the BBC, while classmate Kate Hanns was happy that the community was no longer looking so withered.

"It became so dry that our town's main attraction, the lake, completely dried up. It had no water at all," she said.

"Last two Christmases I was fighting fires and when it rained this time it was great," said fellow student, Russell Bate, who lives on a nearby farm with his family.

"Everything has greened up now and there's plenty of feed for the sheep."

Green dreams

The rains have given Forbes a glorious taste of what life might be like when the "Big Dry" finally retreats.

Water tank in
The region faces an ongoing battle against water shortages

But while the region has regained some of its verve, the battle to survive and prosper in such a precarious environment will continue despite the rains of past weeks.

"I think there is a wary optimism," the high school principal, Craig Petersen, told the BBC.

"Certainly, there is an awareness that unless we get more decent rainfall the recent rains really aren't going to make a big difference.

"I think people are concerned that, yes, it is great now, however, if we don't have that consistent rainfall, this is just a pleasant little blip on an otherwise fairly depressing outlook."

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