Australian Rangeland Society

David Phelps, ARS President and Director, DAF Office,  Landsborough Hwy, Longreach  Qld  4730.  Email: president@austrangesoc.com.au

Drought is currently very topical across Australia’s eastern states, in both rangeland and non-rangeland areas. The ABC reports that “Farmers across New South Wales and Queensland are calling it the worst drought in living memory. Many are facing ruin and say it is time for their city cousins to acknowledge the disaster” (http://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2018-07-29/the-big-dry-see-us-hear-us-help-us/10030010 ).

There are two sentiments expressed in this quote: that this really is the worst drought ever; and that city people and politicians are not listening. The latter reflects the frustration felt by many rangeland dwellers on a range of issues. One of our well known ARS members and prominent CSIRO scientist, Dr Mark Stafford Smith, lists the lack of a voice in mainstream media and political channels as one of the key features for rangelands. In his book ‘Dry Times: blueprint for a red land’ and papers within The Rangeland Journal, Mark and his co-authors have constructed the desert syndrome to explain the biological, sociological and economic systems within the rangelands. They note that Australian rangeland systems possess “some essential features shared with desert regions elsewhere in the world, but which differ from non-desert regions” (Dialogue 28, 2/2009 p9). They refer to unpredictable climate and scarce resources as constraints, both of which are interwoven with drought. These resource constraints, coupled with scarce capital and limited livelihoods, lead to a sparse population which is both scattered across the landscape and concentrated into a small (and ever decreasing) number of towns and communities, any of which also have a very mobile population. Overall, these lead to the remoteness that is a very noticeable feature for our urban cousins when they visit. The sparse population and remoteness generate distinctly local knowledge and cultural differences within ‘population pockets’ and people scattered across the landscape. This results in social uncertainty, and a lack of control over (often) unpredictable markets, labour pools and policy. National and provincial policy and governance settings tend to take a more homogenised view of issues and as a result often seem disconnected from reality for rangeland dwellers.

In a paper lead by Yiheyis Maru (Global Environmental Change 28 (2014) pp 337-350) the desert syndrome model is taken one step further, to explore two seemingly conflicting narratives for the rangelands: that marginalised remote regions are highly vulnerable to climate change; and that these people in these unpredictable and harsh climates have a wealth of experiential knowledge. The authors conclude that these narrative coexist; whilst rangelands regions are often vulnerable to climate change—and hence unpredictability and drought—due to a range of factors, they are also a source of much knowledge due to the high frequency of experiencing these conditions. Maru et al. propose that these regions need support and investment to develop local autonomy and control over resources so that knowledge and social capital can be applied, rather than allow decision making to become further distant in an ever globalising world.

I suggest that our city cousins are prepared to listen and help, if the message is provided to them. Examples were given at last year’s ARS conference in Pt Augusta of the difference that service club networks, such as Rotary and Lions, are making across western Queensland during that region’s current drought. City clubs have listened to the impact drought has on both pastoral and town businesses, and responded by sending cash donations for local spending and appropriate action. Stafford Smith and colleagues note within the desert syndrome that policy makers are willing to listen and engage during times of crisis; “from time to time, interest will turn to the desert, and people will want to make changes to how it operates. Desert dwellers should be aware from historical experience that the interest soon passes. The important thing is to use it to establish structures that are resilient to fluctuating levels of interest” (Dialogue 28, 2/2009 p13). Given the current media attention and recent drought tour by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to rangeland towns such as Nyngan and Boulia, this appears to be one of those times.

Is this the worst drought ever? The answer—as it usually is with drought—is that it depends on where you are, over what period of time and at what scale you review the data. For example, the Bureau of Meteorology drought maps present rainfall totals for the 10th percentile (i.e. the lowest 10% of years) and take a national perspective based on available rainfall stations. These maps suggest drought for the last 6 months (January-June 2018) is confined to eastern South Australia, the south-west of Queensland and the Hunter, Central-west and Tablelands of NSW (http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/drought/archive/20180503.archive.shtml#tabs=Rainfall-tracker ) and that drought is mostly absent for the eastern states over the last 48 months (http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/drought/archive/20180503.archive.shtml#tabs=Rainfall-tracker ). This contrasts with data from specific locations through the Australian CliMate app and website (https://climateapp.net.au ). Central-western Queensland does not appear to fall under the 10th percentile for either 6 or 48 months, yet at the individual rainfall station scale Longreach is in the 3rd percentile for the last 6 months, the 6th percentile for the last 48 months and 0th percentile for the last 60 month. Birdsville, in the far south-west, is in the 25th percentile for the last 6 months and the 59th percentile the last 48 months, and has barely dropped into the 10th percentile range over the last 60 months. It is important to consider the scale and time frame at which data are being presented. The ABC on-line news article refers to Denman and Currabubula in NSW, of which both are at the 30th percentile for the last 48 months, but the 12th and 3rd percentiles for the last 6 months. Depending on where you are, how you review the data and the time frame being considered, this could well be the worst rainfall deficit in recorded history.

In relative terms, Australia’s rainfall records are short. There is some very interesting science being conducted in the field of paleoclimate to reconstruct rainfall patterns prior to instrumentation. One recent paper, by Mandy Freund and colleagues from the University of Melbourne, used several climate indices to link climate drivers with Australian rainfall and drought patterns (Climate of the Past 13 (2017) pp 1751-70). Based on these reconstructed data, the authors suggest that the spatial extent and duration of the Millennium Drought (1997–2009) was very much below average in southern Australia for the last 400 years. Again, time frame and location are very important when it comes to analysing drought. It remains to be seen if the current drought is the worst in terms of rainfall across large regions. It is clear that it is the worst on record—and seemingly for last few hundred years—for many individual locations.

Drought is not as simple as rainfall records. A number of papers in an upcoming Pt Augusta conference special issue of The Rangeland Journal will focus on drought as it relates to impact on resources, production systems, and towns and their social fabric.

I would suggest that we, as rangeland residents and scientists, have unique perspectives, knowledge and skills of great benefit to the study of drought, because we have experienced and studied drought more frequently than non-rangeland dwellers. I would like to encourage all of us to continue to contribute to improved understanding of drought, its impacts on resources, biodiversity, conservation, socioeconomic and production systems; and of the larger picture of the greater changes underway within our climate.