Transformative disaster

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Winter in Wollongong is usually a fairly benign affair. Cool dry air, blue skies. But this past week we’ve had an east coast low that has brought severe weather warnings, heavy rain and localised flooding.

On Tuesday I was teaching our big first year human geography class. Five hundred students spread across five campuses – Wollongong, Shoalhaven, Southern Highlands, Batemans Bay and Bega. The theme of the lecture was ‘natural disasters’, and we were considering how they’re not quite as ‘natural’ as they might seem. Continue reading

Water and the politics of environmental knowledge

This is the sixth post in our series on drought, flood and water. In this series we are making connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcasing our research. This week, Leah Gibbs writes on the matter of water and the politics of environmental knowledge.

Early explorers of the Australian inland were so confident of finding fresh water that many carried boats with them on their expeditions. Finding the ‘inland sea’ – or a major inland river or lake upon which they could base a settlement – became a significant motivation for exploration. Expeditions were driven by social expectations of what the landscapes of this vast new continent should provide for the emerging nation.

But expectations were based on European environmental knowledge, imported from the British Isles through colonisation, and plonked onto Australian nature. A pattern of expectation and interaction set in train early in the colonial period continues to shape settler relations with water, and the politics of environmental knowledge. Continue reading

What does ‘flood country’ mean?

This post is the fifth in our new series on drought, flood and water. The series makes connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcases our new books and articles. This week, Emily O’Gorman reflects on floods, as discussed in Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Cover image: W.C. Piguenit, ‘The flood in the Darling, 1890’.

Three weeks ago I wrote about some of the ways that flood histories have shaped contemporary approaches to and politicisations of rivers, floods, and floodplains in the Murray-Darling Basin. This week I will write about the term ‘flood country’, which I came to use as the title of my book.

Some of the complex cultural meanings that have been given to floods are evident in the phrase ‘flood country’ as well as ‘flooded country’. These terms were first used by European colonists in the 1850s, and can be found quite frequently in documents relating to rivers in the Murray and Darling systems from that time onwards. Initially a simple description of flooded land, these evocative words came to describe the way the nature of the landscape had been shaped because it had been flooded. The words have especially (but not exclusively) been used by graziers as well as early colonial surveyors, and have endured in some grazing regions. In an essay about the changing flows of the Darling River from pumping water for irrigation, historian Heather Goodall has described how pastoralists still talk about the blacksoil floodplains of the  river in these terms: ‘Graziers consistently refer to the blacksoil areas of their land as ‘the flooded country’, not ‘flood-prone’ but ‘flooded’. The floodwaters are always present in the imagination of the observers, even when there has been no flow for years beyond the banks’.* Even in the harshest of droughts, the words conjured up the image of the imagined water covering the land.

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Drought and climate change: more of the same or a new normal?

This post is the fourth in our series on drought, flood and water. In this series we are making connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcasing our research. This week, Lesley Head writes on drought and climate change.

In our book Ingrained. A Human Bio-geography of Wheat, Jenny Atchison, Alison Gates and I discussed wheat farmers’ experience and understanding of drought. Whatever their views on anthropogenic climate change, coping with climatic variability goes with the territory of being a farmer. ‘That’s our job description’, said one, reflecting widespread pride in the capacities of wheat farmers to cope with drought. It’s a job description that comes with a certain amount of pain, as attested by stories of stressed families and sleepless nights over unpaid bills. If living with drought is normal, how different will climate change be? In this post I consider four angles on that question. Continue reading

The matter of water

This post is the third in our series on drought, flood and water. In this series we are making connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcasing our research. This week, Leah Gibbs writes on the materiality of water, as discussed in her forthcoming paper in Environment and Planning A, Bottles, bores and boats: agency of water assemblages in post/colonial inland Australia.

The politics of water in Australia is marked by an idea that water is separate, discrete matter. ‘Stuff’ that can be moved, used, manipulated as and when we humans choose. We drill bores, build dams, dig irrigation channels, desalinate the sea, to extract, contain, direct and now make fresh water. This idea of water as separate extends to how we think about water and how we govern it. We separate water physically, conceptually and bureaucratically. And unfortunately, the idea of separate water contributes to a good deal of misinformation and conflict.

But we don’t have to look far to see that water isn’t separate. And perhaps we can create ways of overturning the notion. In my watery research, I have found myself wondering how we might rethink water to provide a constructive alternative to the outmoded concept of separate water. In particular, I’ve been wondering what would happen if we took seriously the materiality of water. I’m in good company here: my musings are part of a body of work by geographers and friends in related fields interested in ‘taking materiality seriously’.

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Thinking historically about floods in the Murray-Darling Basin

This post is the second 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 and articles. This week, Emily O’Gorman reflects on floods, as discussed in Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin.

During a research trip in May this year to the Murrumbidgee River region in inland NSW, the power of floods to shape landscapes, lives and livelihoods again became apparent to me. Floods had peaked along this and nearby rivers (like the Lachlan) a couple of months previously, and the effects of the floods – and in some places the water itself – still lingered. Near the town of Narrandera, water had pooled against the road embankments, creating ephemeral wetlands that some waterbirds were still visiting. The number and variety of parrots was staggering; the populations of foxes, too, had increased, evident in both the road kill and frequent sightings. It was an ecological ‘boom’ that has become a well known characteristic of floods in many places in Australia. The people I spoke to, mostly farmers, were noticeably more relaxed than during my previous research visits over the last two years to this particular area (and last seven years to different parts of the Murray-Darling Basin), which had included the tail end of a long drought that lasted in some places in this region for 10 years. Continue reading

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. Continue reading