Towns in rural Australia are at risk of dying off as drought and Federal Government policy takes a toll on agriculture and forces a “mass exodus” in some regions.
The town of Deniliquin in south-west New South Wales is the heart of what was once a thriving agricultural region. But after years of drought, water levels in the Murray River are at their lowest in more than a century.
With the Federal Government offering to buy back farmers’ water allocations, some are giving up on agriculture altogether.
Many families and businesses are struggling to survive, prompting a mass exodus from the town.
The Wettenhall family has been farming in Deniliquin for 30 years, but they have decided they cannot go on.
The worst drought in history means they have had no water for irrigation for three years and Adam Wettenhall says this year they are only promised a trickle.
“It’s been incredibly tough. In fact the last three years have just been negative income, we’ve had to pull the heads right in, we’re not spending money on any machinery, we haven’t had a new machine in five or six years,” he said.
The Wettenhalls are financially crippled by the fixed charges they are forced to pay for water they do not receive.
The Federal Government is buying water directly from farmers to replenish the ailing Murray-Darling system.
For some it is a welcome cash grab to pay off mounting debt. But Rob Brown, a financial planner in the region, says many farmers believe they are being exploited because the Government is the only buyer and it sets the price.
“The farmers are frustrated and hurt and know they’re being exploited and the reason they’re being exploited,” he said.
“They know the Government knows that after 10 years of drought, you’re sitting ducks.”
Deniliquin has enjoyed decades of prosperity on the back of the rice industry and farmers were drawn to the region by an irrigation scheme they believed would make the region droughtproof.
But times have changed and the town is experiencing an unprecedented downturn.
Last year hundreds of people lost their jobs when the rice mill closed. The mill was once the symbol of Deniliquin’s prosperity, the largest rice mill in the southern hemisphere, capable of producing enough grain each day to feed 30 million people.
Deniliquin’s Mayor Lindsay Renwick estimates that two families are leaving the town a week.
“Since the rice industry has stopped we have had a mass exodus,” he said.
Now, the big question is, how will farms remain productive when the drought does break if the Federal Government has bought the majority of the water?
Chairman of the Murray Action Group, Lester Wheatley, is worried that the Government has not considered the future of both food production and the town of Deniliquin.
“There has been absolutely no concern, no apparent concern by either state or federal government about what we’re going to do about security for the future,” he said.
“I’m convinced that the Government is not in the slightest bit interested in fact their attitude is more likely to be ‘Well, it’ll be natural attrition. If nobody lives in Deniliquin and everybody moves to the coast, well so be it’.”
But the Federal Government says it is doing everything it can in the face of a changing climate.
Minister for Water and Climate Change Penny Wong says the Federal Government is trying to keep the agricultural industry going.
“We have to face up to a reality of a future where we’re likely to see the less water. What we’re doing is rolling out projects – seeking projects that will ensure efficiencies and continue to produce more crop per drop.”