The productive agency of drought?

This post is the first in our new series on drought, flood and water. Over the coming weeks we will make connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcase our new books. This week, Lesley Head reflects on drought and wheat, as discussed in Ingrained: a Human Bio-geography of Wheat.

Drought is recent enough in the memory of most Australians for us to feel sympathy with those currently experiencing it in North America. The apocalyptically named ‘Millennium Drought’ affected southeastern Australia in particular for the first decade of this century. In the hemispheric oscillations of wheat supply, one farmer’s misfortune is another’s bumper year; wheat prices for Australian farmers are on the rise as harvest projections plummet in North America.

Drought is often depicted as a catastrophe, in which Australians are locked in battle with a fickle and hostile nature. But there are other ways to think about it. And, as climate change projections consistently indicate that southern Australia – where most of the population and agriculture are – will get drier over coming decades, we need to learn to live with drought in better ways.

This shift in thinking came to us gradually as Jenny Atchison, Alison Gates and I undertook the research for the book. You can’t follow wheat far without also encountering drought. Most of our farming fieldwork took place in southeastern Australia during the extreme drought years of 2005-07, providing unique insights into the interplay of climate with other factors.

We didn’t just follow wheat around the landscape, we also followed the evolutionary and historical pathways by which wheat became itself. Drought was productive in the evolution of grassy plantiness in wheaty ancestors millions of years ago. Grasses are characterised by the capacity to tolerate drought and open environments; this facilitated their ecological expansion during the late Miocene.
Much more recently, wheat was domesticated in drought prone areas of the Middle East, and contemporary Australian wheat contains genes from many arid and semi-arid parts of the world, including India.

Ecologists argue that Australian arid zone ecologies have evolved boom and bust cycles to cope with the inherent variability of rainfall. We don’t tend to think of wheat in such terms, because we don’t think of wheat as belonging ecologically in the Australian environment. But rain-fed wheat as grown in Australia is a boom and bust crop; when it rains, we get a crop. When it does not, we are not using water inefficiently (except in the few areas where wheat is being irrigated, which seems to make little sense on an environmental calculation). Australian wheat thus contributes positively to the net global water efficiency of the crop.

Farmers of course are well aware of the boom and bust cycles of wheat, and have many strategies and resources to deal with this variability, regardless of their belief or otherwise in climate change. Most of the people are flexible – it’s part of being a farmer. As one of them commented in our interviews, ‘farming… you just try to constantly manage risk, that’s really what we’re doing nearly all the time. You have to think of the worst case scenarios and how you can best try and deflect those.’ Rather it is the financial instruments and the economics of infrastructure – for harvest, storage, transport – that are often too stable and inflexible. So farmers who had forward sold part or all of their crop but were looking like being unable to fill their contracts experienced greater stress than others.

Just as drought had agency in the move of wheat from coastal New South Wales to inland areas in the 1860s, so it has a role in helping us make contemporary and future transitions. Both urban and rural examples show us a way to value drought as a pause in the life of the nation – to see its agency as productive as well as destructive.

During and since the Millennium Drought there have been inklings of shifts in underlying consciousness and practice. The media documented examples of changed tilling practices, reported that farming households had been quick to seek off-farm work before they got too deep into financial difficulty, and argued that in the end the drought had had the positive outcome of weeding out the most vulnerable farmers. The substantial investment of time that farmers put into environmental protection works during the drought foreshadows what agricultural life in a climate change world might look like. Urban TV audiences had had their own drought to contend with, as their regional water catchments dropped to frighteningly low levels, reported weekly on TV weather forecasts, along with the Southern Oscillation Index. They cut water consumption in homes and gardens under the influence of water restrictions, installed water tanks and debated recycling and desalination. In Melbourne, people grieved the loss of majestic European street and park trees that had survived for a hundred years.

Market research showed that in mid-2009, while Australians thought ‘global warming’ was the most important environmental issue facing the world, they thought ‘water management’ and ‘drought’ were the most important issues for Australia. That drought provides the lens through which both urban and rural Australians understand wider climatic processes has both positive and negative potential. By mid-2011, climate change had taken over from drought as the main environmental issue facing Australia. It remains to be seen whether the wet phase dominant in eastern Australia in the last couple of years will engender temporary but disciplined celebration of water abundance, or complacency that wet conditions are ‘normal’, and everything will be alright after all.

Have you encountered or researched creative outcomes from drought? We’d love to hear about them.

More on drought and climate change in three weeks time. Next Tuesday: Emily O’Gorman writes on learning from flood histories. And after that, Leah Gibbs on the materiality of water.

One thought on “The productive agency of drought?

  1. Pingback: Thinking historically about floods in the Murray-Darling Basin | Conversations with AUSCCER

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