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The Universal Sadness Issue

The Dusty Ground And The Dying Koalas

Australia’s the driest inhabited country in the world, and many parts have been in a state of perpetual drought since the mid-1990s.
January 2, 2009, 12:00am

BY DAVE MARTIN, ILLUSTRATIONS BY LAURA PARK

Australia is in deep shit. It’s the driest inhabited country in the world, and many parts have been in a state of perpetual drought since the mid-1990s. People across most of the country are now living under some form of water restrictions. You can’t even spill a couple of drops of the stuff accidentally without an angry neighbor smashing you in the back of the head like, “Dickhead, we’re in a drought!” And yeah, sure, it’s a problem for people in the suburbs who want a swimming pool (let’s make this simple—you have no fucking chance) and the sort of knob who wants to wash his car 11 times a week. But it’s those out in the bush, living off the land, who are bearing the true burden of the Australian drought. A friend of ours who grew up in outback New South Wales tells of a pretty typical experience for people there. On his way to school, he’d walk through a bunch of sheep paddocks. He recalls, “There was no water. All the mother sheep and their lambs had died as a result. I was like nine years old, looking at these sheep die and then watching the carcasses being eaten by flies. There would be a dying lamb, too weak to walk, crying out next to its dead mother while the flies were already laying maggots in its mouth. Every day. It wasn’t exactly

Dot and the Kangaroo

.”

And it’s getting worse. In fact, it’s so sad that if we don’t break down how bad it is into bite-size chunks, we would cry so much that our tears would fill up our keyboards and short-circuit our laptops and we would be electrocuted, and then we wouldn’t be able to tell you about the drought. It’s a paradox if ever there was one.

One male farmer commits suicide approximately every four days in Australia. Loss of income is the major contributing factor. The suicide rate among farm workers is more than double the national average (17.74 per 100,000 compared with 36.58 for agricultural workers), and in Tasmania alone, suicide rates among rural farmers have risen 30 percent in recent years. It’s gotten to the point where farmer-advocacy groups worry that some people who work as water irrigators may take their own lives rather than face another dry season. Jacinta Hawgood, from the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, tells us, “The type of people attracted to farming are those that want to work in isolation. They’re often introverted and so possibly more prone to depression. They’re vulnerable.”

Experts have indicated that Australia is already at double its sustainable living capacity and that the population is growing at a rate that will soon render the country overpopulated. By 2030, Melbourne’s population is predicted to increase by about 1 million people. Across rural Victoria, there’ll be 350,000 more people. We’ll need 659,000 megaliters of water a year but it’s estimated we’ll only have 566,000 megaliters. So that’s 566,000 minus 659,000. Now, I failed math in high school, but I’m pretty sure that equals FUCKED. Basically, Australians are going to run out of water.

Dr. Brian Davidson, a senior lecturer in resource economics and agricultural economy at the University of Melbourne, says that much of the problem lies in the distribution of what little water there is Down Under. He says the government is always going to treat water as a business, taking it to its highest-valued user, which in this case is to the cities, leaving Aussie farmers to suffer. A town called Euroa in the province of Victoria recently had its entire water supply diverted to a more important town that you might have heard of called Sydney. They were left without even so much as a drop to drink, much less to bathe in or wash their shit away with.

Davidson says, “Try taking a beer off a person in a pub and giving it to someone else. See how that goes.” He also tells us that in the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been less talk about the quality of water, but more about the quantity. We’ll probably see the results of that particular issue in 40 years, when Australian babies are being born with tails because of the toxic garbage in our drinking water.

Every ten years, Australia has three good years of rainfall and three bad. Down here, there are not many things more valued or discussed than rain. It’s a topic of heated national debate. Years before the drought began, when water levels weren’t a problem, whenever it rained you’d hear everyone going, “Fuck. Rain.” Then, when we started running low on water and it rained, people would say, “Well, at least it’s good for the farmers” or “That’s gotta be good for the dams.” Now, it’s

really

awkward, because we’ve realized that farmers don’t even know what rain looks like anymore and our forefathers fucked up and constructed water catchments in areas that don’t actually get any of the rain we get in the cities. We’re so confused we don’t know what to say. But that’s cool, because according to one of Australia’s leading scientific bodies, pretty soon we might not have to worry about it at all.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization has predicted that rainfall in parts of eastern Australia could drop 40 percent by 2070, along with a 44.5-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature. By 2030, the risk of bushfires will be higher, droughts will be more severe, and rainfall and stream runoff will be lower. At this point it seems that the only thing the Australian government could do to prevent disastrous suffering for our next generation would be to initiate an aggressive policy of on-the-house abortions for all.

Bankruptcy is at an all-time high in the bush. With reduced production, widespread closures, and less work comes greater unrest. People are getting angrier and more desperate. Having few other options, crime, especially violent assaults and drug and alcohol abuse, are on the rise. People in rural parts of western Australia are the heaviest users of amphetamines in the country. Among Aboriginal communities, petrol sniffing has become such a problem that energy companies had to develop a nonsniffable fuel to help fight it. Overall drug use in the bush is down (mainly due to unavailability because nobody who isn’t stuck out there wants to go anywhere near there again), but binge drinking is up, as are incidents of alcohol-fueled violence and a skyrocketing rate of death and injury due to drunk driving.

Divorce in the bush is now more common than ever, as is homelessness. Some country people have even resorted to living in their trailers on the road, moving every couple of days to escape punishment from rural police. That’s right, folks. Roving groups of homeless, desperate, and angry people in rural Australia. Sound familiar? Won’t be long till Toecutter and Lord Humungus are showing up to the party.

Australia has the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet and right now it is facing its greatest-ever challenge. Since European settlement, Australia has driven 27 native mammal species to extinction. The drought (and subsequent dried-out vegetation, bushfires, and barren riverbeds) is the greatest threat to the survival of much of the country’s native wildlife, leading to the threat of extinction of many species. When the Europeans arrived, the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), which is Australia’s most important agricultural region, was home to 85 native mammal species. Twenty of those are now extinct. That’s almost one in every four.

Lying in the country’s southeast, the MDB comprises a complex network of wetlands, grasslands, and rivers. It covers 14 percent of the nation’s territory, contains over 40 percent of its farms, and supplies over a third of its food. It also supports over 500 native animal species and is one of the country’s chief migratory destinations for bird species. And even though most of the country gets its water from the MDB, it receives only 6 percent of the nation’s annual rainfall. Right now, it has reached its breaking point. Water levels are at an all-time low.

Averil Bones is the biodiversity policy manager of the World Wildlife Fund. What concerns her the most is the permanent damage that’s being done to the flora and fauna. Animals suffer not only because of the drought but also because of land clearing, habitat loss, and invasive species. “I think the outlook for many species is fairly grim,” Bones says. “We are looking at extinctions. It is pretty much an endgame for many animals and plants in the river system.”

We’ve thrown a lot of percentages and numbers at you over the last few minutes here. Sorry. But we had to. And here come the worst ones. Please read the following paragraph twice:

From over 200,000 types of birds 15 years ago, the MDB is now down to fewer than 2,000. More than 70 percent of both the resident and migratory shorebirds in the region are extinct, over 20 percent of the area’s mammals are endangered, and 25 out of 29 fish species are threatened. None have any serious prospects of recovery.

OK, seriously. That’s apocalyptic. Right?

This next part is for those of you who only care about koalas and kangaroos when it comes to Australia. The drought is causing some of the worst bushfires the continent has ever seen, which is decimating the koala population. Those cute little bandits are being burned alive. The ones that escape a fiery end are left with no food sources, so they are slowly starving to death. Kangaroos, desperate for food and water, have begun heading into small towns, where they are summarily hit by cars when they go to pick at the grass on people’s front lawns. Even feral camels, following the Trans-Australia Railway Line across the outback, are being killed by trains when they go to lick the morning dew off the cold steel rail lines. And no, we are not making this up to be maudlin here.

So, what is the rest of the world doing to help Australia? Oh, nothing. What can

you

do to help Australia? Not a thing. Unless, wait, can you make rain pour from the sky? Are you a rain god? Didn’t think so. I guess we’ll have to give up on that quirky world down below. Goodbye koalas, wallabies, and Vegemite. So long Nick Cave, INXS, and Paul Hogan. We’ll sing “Waltzing Matilda” while weeping into a Foster’s every January 26 (that’s Australia Day, you ignorant bastards) for the rest of our lives.

Farewell, Australia. Farewell.