The devastating effects of drought in a country addicted to coal

by Bernard Lagan / 03 February, 2019
Sheep stand in a pen in New South Wales, Australia. Photo/Getty Images

Sheep stand in a pen in New South Wales, Australia. Photo/Getty Images

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Wildlife are dying in the millions in Australia as the mercury hits new highs and climate change goes ignored.

On the edge of the outback, 1000km west of Sydney, is old Tolarno Station, at 250,000ha the largest private land holding in New South Wales. In its 170 years, Tolarno has prospered – and crashed – on the sheep’s back while figuring in the penning of Waltzing Matilda.

Its storied 20-room homestead – under an acre of roof – nestles in a leafy grove just above the biggest bend on one of Australia’s longest rivers, the Darling, which, including tributaries, flows for 2844km.

Or once flowed. For the Darling, crippled by a murderous drought, climate change and, depending on who you talk to, the greed or need of industrial scale, water-intensive rice and cotton farms far upstream, has slowed to a stinking, brackish trickle.

When I stayed a night at Tolarno a year or so ago, owner Rob McBride was clinging on. He’d found a Mexican market for the station’s thousands of feral goats, survivors of the endless dry that had forced the destocking of sheep and cattle.

Like most farmers, he prayed for flooding rains that might restore his property. It hasn’t happened. It was McBride and his daughter, Kate, who last month shocked Australians when they uploaded a video of tens of thousands of fish – they say up to a million – that were killed as the Darling’s oxygen ran out, sapped by a blue-green algal bloom, itself a product of the river’s plummeting water quality and levels.

The stench of death created by this drought and, now, Australia’s grim, record-breaking heatwaves reaches far beyond the Darling’s banks. Already, millions of kangaroos have died and the weak survivors gather in mobs beside outback roads seeking overnight moisture and blundering into passing vehicles.

Late November’s extreme heatwave in far north Queensland is estimated to have killed more than 23,000 spectacled flying foxes (huge bats), equating to almost a third of the species in Australia.

In outback Western Australia, where temperatures have hit 50°C, thousands of wild camels are walking out of the desert in vast mobs, smashing through farms in search of water meant for cattle. In the past month alone, pastoralists have shot at least 2500 of the animals and report that they have never seem so many emaciated camels emerge from the Gibson Desert, a wilderness larger than the South Island.

Even the wild horses that have ranged the New South Wales highlands and central Australia for centuries are dying in their hundreds.

Drought and death are hardly remarkable in Australia, the world’s driest continent apart from Antarctica. Yet, in many places, this summer’s temperatures and wildlife deaths are without precedent. In mid-January, on one sweltering night in north-western New South Wales, the all-time Australian record for the highest minimum temperature was broken. Noona, a speck of a town where 14 people live 670km west of Sydney, holds the new overnight minimum temperature record of 35.9°C.

At the time of writing, Adelaide had reached 46.2C, the record maximum for any Australian capital.

Unlike New Zealand, whose PM, Jacinda Ardern, told world leaders in Davos in late January they had nothing to fear by acting now on climate change, Australia is run by a prime minister who delights in brandishing a lump of coal in Parliament and telling MPs they have nothing to fear from burning even more of it.

Meanwhile, the Darling – and much else – slowly dies.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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