Kate Auty
Kate Auty is a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne, a barrister and environmental scientist. Long links with Aboriginal people have impacted everything she does.
Kate Auty
Professor Mike Stewardson speaking to the Euroa dryland farming community. Photo: supplied

The little Victorian town of Euroa is a centre for dryland agriculture at the south-eastern end of the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB). Climate change is impacting the town and its surrounds. 

Although it is in the MDB, Euroa is not one of the towns in the news as it’s not an irrigators’ centre. It is nevertheless a town emblematic of climate change realities.

During the Millennium Drought the water supply ran dry. Water was trucked in. People remember this. 

This year, the Abinga Dam has been reduced to 26 per cent of capacity. Water restrictions have been introduced. Street trees are dying. Because people are vigilant, any green lawn has to be explained: you will see the occasional sign ‘bore water in use’. 

People are worried about trucking in water again. We could tell that story, but there is a deeper, wider narrative.

No more scapegoats

The surrounding area — from the plains in the west to the Strathbogie Ranges plateau in the east — is primarily agricultural and these dryland farmers are hurting. Their stories aren’t as florid as those of irrigators, who can find a scapegoat for climate change impacts in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). They can only rely on their farm dams and stream flow or rainfall to fill them. 

Out on the plains the dams are dry. Up in the hills, springs which have never been unreliable are drying up, and some have simply disappeared.   

Responding to this climate change phenomenon and thinking strategically about the federal election, a small group of local farmers, business people, and environmentalists urgently convened a community meeting on Saturday, May 4. 

Within two weeks the organisers found and invited highly-specialised researchers with local research knowledge and backgrounds. All three volunteered their time on a Saturday afternoon — this was lucky as the organisers had no budget! A venue was provided free of charge by a local publican. Social media-savvy and old-fashioned telephone trees got the message out.

Worst-case scenarios exceeded

Photo: supplied

Professors Tim Reeves, Mike Stewardson and Nick Bond (yes a ‘manel’ whose gender balance was difficult to change at such short notice) all gave up hours to join the dryland farming community and explain local hydrology; the need to adapt dryland farming practices to climate change; the ecological implications of climate change, rainfall reductions and heat (and frost) events, and the formulation of some questions for political candidates. Powerpoint presentations have been freely shared, almost immediately. 

There may have been people in the 80-strong community participants who (still) dispute the science, but no one challenged the research.

Each expert’s research and presentation sheeted the present agricultural conditions home to climate change. 

Critical observations from the experts at the forum were: there had been an 11pc reduction in rainfall since mid 1990; rainfall will continue to decline by 3pc per decade; worst-case scenarios have been exceeded; many dryland streams were permanently altered by the Millennium Drought. Farming, the community and the environment are being impacted.

Four questions

As intended, the organisers provided the technical support, butcher’s paper for table discussions, and moderated a respectful question-and-answer session. Having committed to taking the drylanders’ comments and questions to the election candidates, this was done.

Four questions have been put to the candidates and responses have been sought within five days:-

  1. What would your party do to prevent water speculators profiteering during droughts?
  2. All governments have reduced research funding to research institutes. This impacts the ability to adapt agriculture to climate change and to understand the impact of climate change on the environment. What is your commitment to sustained investment in research?
  3. Dryland farmers are dealing with climate change and reduced rainfall. This is predicted to decrease even further. What are your solutions to address the water requirements of the farming and urban communities, the environment, and large regional centres?
  4. How will you ensure that the community and farmers are adequately engaged, informed and enabled to address water issues associated with climate change?

Climate election

This is the climate election. This small rural farming and town community demonstrates exactly that.

Urgency was met with action. The organisers convened this forum in days. The professorial experts made themselves available immediately they were asked.

Eighty dryland farmers, business people and environmentalists attended the forum at very short notice. Thoughtful interrogations occurred across the two hours of the forum and have formed the basis of questions which have been submitted to political candidates.

This community — like communities all over the country — is waiting for a climate policy which will address local concerns and meet our global commitments.