Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Belshaw's World - a land of drought and flooding rains

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 12 January 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

My thanks to those who provided information in response to my last column on the members of the 1939 NEUC Rugby team. I have passed this information onto Paul Barratt who will follow up.

As I write, news of the dreadful flash flood in Toowoomba is coming through. I was reminded of the flash flood in Walcha a few years ago now.

A week back, my investigations into a story led me took at the Annual Australian Climate report for 2010 released on 5 January by the Bureau of Metrology.

The Australian mean rainfall total for 2010 was 690 mm, well above the long-term average of 465 mm. As a result, 2010 was Australia’s wettest year since 2000 and the third-wettest year on record since recording commenced in 1900.

These are national figures. Australia is a very big country, so you get considerable variations across the country. 2010 was the wettest year on record for the Murray-Darling basin, yet the driest on record for South West Western Australia.

Water held in the Murray-Darling storages has increased from 26% at the start of 2010 to 80% at the start of 2011. Many of the inland dams were built in part for flood mitigation purposes. This has reduced the incidence of big flood events. However, once dams fill, then further rain goes straight to the rivers.

Looking at the figures really reminded me just how variable the Australian climate is.

The chart shows Australia wide figures since 1900. If you look at the annual rainfall line, you can see just how much rainfall fluctuates.

We know this, but we also tend to forget it.

Many of the weather events are marked in my memory.

The big drought at the start of the 1900s shows on the graph. Australia was then very dependent on primary products and especially wool and wheat, so the effects of that drought spread across the entire economy.

With sheep numbers today back to a level not seen since the early 1900s, younger Australians simply do not remember when Australia rode on the sheep’s back.

My family knows that books are always a pretty safe be for presents. This year I was given Thomas Keneally’s latest book on Australian history through to the gold rushes.

Browsing the index, I said that there is almost nothing on the wool industry! My family looked blankly at me. Why should there be, one asked?

This triggered the Belshaw lecturing mode, leading family members to move quickly in opposite directions!

Today, Australia is just as dependent on a narrow range of commodity products as we were in 1902, although coal and iron ore now dominate. The floods in Queensland have reduced coal production, affecting global prices as well as the Australian economy.

Present estimates of the costs of the flood suggest a hit to GDP of around minus 0.6 per cent. That’s not insignificant.

The chart also shows the droughts of the 1980s, although the national figures do not properly reveal the local severity on the New England.

This drought wiped out the Kentucky apple crop. With the price of Lucerne hay sky-rocketing, I organised gangs of students to go down to Kentucky to pick the shrivelled fruit for use as stockfeed.

The fluctuations in rainfall also reminded me of New England’s big floods when the rivers to the east, west and south rose and rose and rose. Here, to my frustration, I could not find the book that I wanted that described some of those floods.

Living in Sydney as I now do, I find that metro life diminishes the memory of country Australia past and present.

I am a townie, not a country person, even though some of my family was on the land. Even so, the things that I knew and thought of as important have become much diminished.

I gave one example of this in an earlier column. Asked to write a piece on the Australian outback, one group in my daughter’s class selected the Blue Mountains!

Is this important?

It’s obviously important to me at a personal level, because the country was part of my life. However, I think that it’s more than that.

During the great drought just finished, there was real disconnect between city responses and the on-ground realities elsewhere. The end-result was some very silly policy responses.

Maybe, just maybe, the current floods will open new opportunities for discussion.

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