When the river runs dry

I’ve been off the radar for the past few weeks. A dastardly head cold settled in for a couple of weeks. But, I have also been involved in Red Cross’ drought work, which has ramped up dramatically over the past 4 or so weeks.

I was involved in the Millennium drought social support program when I was with Human Services in Victoria. As we were a small team, my colleague Greg Ireton managed most of it, as I managed the impacts of the Bali Bombings. Someone made nameplates, I was Captain Bali and he was The Drought Boy. Now I am the Drought Boy

This drought has been simmering for the past three years. In fact, i started writing this blog in 2015!. However, with the failure of the autumn rains and winter rains, most of NSW  and parts of Southern Queensland have reached crisis point. The ABC has done an excellent job in highlighting the issues for many farmers

People, of course, have been managing climate variations and water scarcity in Australia for more than 60,000 years. This is not new for our first nations people. Although it can have a significant impact on health and wellbeing as culturally important rivers dry out.

Drought in its simplest form is a shortage of water. However there may be a range of factors that contribute to a definition of drought; rainfall, soil moisture, run off. The Bureau of Meteorology produces monthly drought maps to highlight rainfall deficit. I have recently seen

The approach to managing drought (Drought policy) has moved from “drought proofing” in the mid-20th century, to regarding it as a natural disaster in the 70s/80s, to regarding it as a natural part of business risk management, and the focus should be on helping farmers prepare for drought. This has shifted how assistance is provided, and government responses, with far more emphasis on resilience building, diversification of incomes, and transitioning out of farming where it is no longer viable. This has become a polarising debate in the current drought relating to provision of assistance.  

We also now have people called for the cutting of foreign aid, and redirect it to drought affected farmers. Our aid budget is already small, but we are a wealthy nation. THere are good reasons to do both. 

Recovery from drought is a challenge, as it is really social support. One of the things that Colin MacDougall from Flinders University mentioned to me was that the health indicators for people experiencing drought really drop off dramatically, which is counter intuitive, as we think that drought is slow onset, so the impacts will be slow and cumulative.

We also know that suicide among farmers is high, but predisposing mental illness is not. They just snap. But we focus a lot on men because  we think they won’t come forward for help, but tend to ignore the women.

What we learnt, by trial and error during the millennium drought, was that maintaining social connections was very important. Our psycho-social program was heavily skewed toward funding social activities. Things like cinema nights, sponsorship of football games (and having health professionals available), we even provided psychological first aid  training for hairdressers and milk tanker drivers, as these were the people who had the sustained contact with farmers and their families. There was a lot of untied funding, with the idea that communities set up recovery committees to advise on how to spend the money. When someone in a regional office agreed to sponsor the local grudge footy match, I wondered if we had gone too far, and that it would be splashed all over the pages of the Herald Sun. The guys on the ground explained that they would have the community health people at the match, talking about drought issues. We held the line, it was successful. Our current drought program in NSW is just called Let’s Talk.

Personal and financial counselling was funded, and I would place a much stronger focus on financial counselling, as this is the crux of the drought. We can see this way more prominent in the current programs. Programs need to take into account all businesses, not just farming, because of the flow on effect into communities. Assistance shoudl be designed so that there is a flow on effect in local businesses and shops. Mental health programs need to be outreach, professionals need to get dirty and dusty. Farmers won’t come into a clinical setting.

A drought program needs to be supported for a minimum of 3 years. One of my real frustrations was a lack of political will saw our drought program funded for 9 months initially, it was extended three times, always at the death knell, and ended up being nearly 3 years, but many of the community development workers, and mental health professionals moved on during the program due to uncertainty, and the programs lost momentum. Not a great look for those on the land.

Its slow onset, insidious, and has a really hidden impact, as as the river runs dry, we’ll return to the scene of the crime.

4 thoughts on “When the river runs dry

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