Why clear blue skies are bad omen for Australian farmers

As the mercury continues to rise with no rain clouds in sight, Australians are reminded of the merciless nature of the “sunburnt country” they live in.

The widest spread drought ever recorded is devouring over 80 percent of Australia’s northeastern state Queensland and parts of New South Wales.

The drought-declared areas have steadily increased in numbers since 2013 with over 57,000 square miles of the country suffering from their lowest recorded rainfall in years.

Map credit: Bom.gov.au

Map credit: Bom.gov.au

While the magnitude and severity of this “once-in-a-century drought,” as declared by ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbot is shocking, this is not something that comes by surprise for many Australians.

Within the past decade, Australia has experienced an even worse drought. The 2002-2007 millennium drought, also known as ‘The Big Dry” was one of Australia’s worst droughts recorded. Although the rain did come in 2007, water levels did not return to pre-drought levels until 2010 causing ongoing drought effects to be felt in many regions.

Irrigated industries that rely on water storages were particularly affected. Major reservoirs in the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia’s most important irrigation region, fell to 17 percent of capacity in 2003, and remained below pre-drought levels until late 2010. As a result, the government implemented strict water restrictions as a means to preserve what little water was left.

Aside from the detrimental consequences on local produce, there were many other negative side effects. Dry land and harsh temperatures lead to catastrophic bushfires.

Feb. 7 is a very cumbersome day for many Australians as it marks the anniversary of The Black Saturday Bushfires, the worst bushfires ever recorded. It is estimated that the energy released by the black Saturday bushfires was equivalent to the energy released by 1,500 Hiroshima atomic bombs. The bushfires claimed the lives of 173 people, injuring many more and displacing over 7,500 people.

The mix of extreme drought, and devastating bushfires led to high levels of depression. Young males were the most affected. Suicide rates in rural Australia were some of the highest in the world with some farmers having no income for several years, relying purely on off-farm work.

For many, the thought of sunshine and blue skies sound like a vision from a daydream; however for Australian farmers this is a sight that many pray will end soon. “Every day I look outside and I say to myself: 'I get so sick to death of blue sky'," farmer Mick wrote in a recent book "Tough Times."

The result of such hardships has led Australians to become diligent in their management of water usage. Public service campaigns and water saving devices helped cut Australia’s daily household water usage from 85 gallons per person per day in 2000 to 55 gallons per person today.

For this reason, many countries have turned to Australia to learn how to implement similar systems and management programs to survive in dry climates.

Drought is currently affecting some parts of the United States as well. Californians are curious as to how Australians managed to decrease their water usage so much, but there is no secret.

The truth is that it’s very hard to change human behaviour. People become accustomed to having certain privileges in life; take them away and people will complain.

The droughts in Australia have thus left a valuable lesson: it is very hard to change attitudes, however, when faced with such adversity, people are willing to change.