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One hundred years of drought and flooding rains

By Ian Castles - posted Friday, 5 September 2008

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the publication in the London Spectator of My country, the celebrated poem in which the young Dorothea Mackellar evoked striking images of Australia’s ever-variable climate in memorable phrases about this “wilful, lavish land” of “drought and flooding rains”, and of the “flood and fire and famine” for which “she pays us back three-fold”.

The lines that began with the original title of the poem touch a deep chord in the memories of an older generation of Australians:

Core of my heart, my country, Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart around us, We see the cattle die ...
And then the grey clouds gather, And we can hear again,
The drumming of an army, The steady soaking rain.


On July 6, 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told viewers of the ABC Insiders TV program of the “very disturbing” findings of a study by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, including that “when it comes to exceptional or extreme drought, exceptionally high temperatures, the historical assumption that this occurred once every 20 years has now been revised down to between every one and two years.”

And in a media release on the same day the Minister for Agriculture, Tony Burke, described the current drought as “infamous - the worst of its kind in a century”. Mr Burke warned that the new study suggested that “this rare event could occur much more often due to climate change”.

Not surprisingly, these statements caused grave disquiet in the rural community. The New South Wales Farmers and Graziers Association received a number of calls from members who were “extremely agitated, confused and upset about the reports of drought every second year in future”. Although the Association’s President, Jock Laurie, blamed “alarmist reporting” for adding “confusion and pressure to farm families at a time when they could least afford it”, it had in fact been the Prime Minister who had raised the spectre of “exceptional or extreme drought” every one or two years.

But the relevant reference in the CSIRO/Bureau of Meteorology report was to simulated changes in the frequency of “exceptionally hot years”, not to “exceptional or extreme drought”, so the Prime Minister had inadvertently misrepresented the report’s findings.

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission’s drought updates make sobering reading, but Dorothea Mackellar’s poignant lines are a reminder that droughts have ravaged the country before.

During the Federation drought (1895-1903), Australia lost half of its sheep and more than 40 per cent of its cattle. No wonder our forebears were sick at heart. It was during this period that “Rivers in western Queensland dried up and the Darling River at Bourke virtually ran dry”.


In December 1914 “The Murray River at Echuca fell to ... just 2 per cent of its normal flow”, and “Downstream of Swan Hill the Murray was reduced to a string of stagnant pools”.

"In April 1945 most Victorian water storages were empty [and] the Murray had ceased to flow at Echuca.”

These details are not drawn from a sceptic website: they come from the Bureau of Meteorology’s highly informative Drought, Dust and Deluge (2004).

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About the Author

Ian Castles is a Visiting Fellow at the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the Australian National University. He is a former Head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

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