When the wind blows, Krystal Bullen’s home can vanish in an instant. It sits on 4,000 acres of dust outside Pilliga, a New South Wales town nearly 300 miles northwest of Sydney, and a good gust will engulf her homestead in a brown haze.
“I’ve kind of given up on cleaning,” says Bullen, 36, laughing at the dust that coated her windows when TIME visited in December. Among the more pressing matters: a debt of nearly half a million dollars, an injured husband and a farm to manage alone during one of Australia’s worst-ever droughts. “We’ve had droughts before,” she says, “but nothing of this caliber.”
Drought is endemic on the world’s driest inhabited continent, but the conditions Australia is currently experiencing count as the most severe in its modern history. It’s not yet the longest spell of drought, but it is the hottest—and since 2012 it has devastated cattle ranches, sheep farms and swaths of arable land across Australia’s vast outback, or bush.
According to government data, winter crop production nationwide is forecast to decrease by 23% in 2018-19. On the country’s east coast, drought has affected 49% of its primarily grassy agricultural land and driven cattle slaughter up by 17%. In the supposedly temperate southeast, one-third of dairy farms are projected to lose money this year.
Higher-than-average temperatures linked to climate change are to blame for the intensity of this drought, according to Professor Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University and vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The country has experienced 9 of the 10 warmest years on record since 2005, and a heat wave in January broke records across Australia. With January bushfires on the southern island of Tasmania and monsoon flooding in parts of northeastern Queensland in early February, Australia is battling the gamut of extreme weather linked to climate change.
Higher temperatures cause water to evaporate faster, Howden explains, making plants less water efficient. “We are probably more challenged than we have ever been before. We’re going into drought quicker, harder, tougher,” he says.
Australia isn’t alone. Average temperatures are surging across the globe. According to the IPCC, by the end of the century drought will become more common and severe across the planet’s mid-latitudes and the subtropics—a cross section of the globe that includes the Mediterranean, the southwest U.S., the western part of South America, and southern Africa.
What is happening in Australia is far from a local phenomenon, says Professor Lesley Hughes of the Climate Council, a crowdfunded think tank based in Sydney. “It’s a harbinger of things to come.”
‘This just isn’t fair’
Since the onset of drought, Bullen’s stock of sheep has dropped from 1,700 to 500. Over in Mitchell, Queensland about 350 miles inland from the coastal city of Brisbane, Kent Morris, 44, has reduced his flock of sheep from 3,000 to 700, and his herd from 300 cattle to just 12. Many have perished in a pattern livestock farmers are experiencing across the bush. With no grass to graze on, animals are reared on feed trucked in from elsewhere — an expensive, time-consuming business.
Weakened by the conditions, sheep and cattle become vulnerable. When they venture into dried-up creeks, they get trapped in the mud. Crows peck out their eyes and giant monitor lizards — known in Australia as goannas — eat them alive. Farmers spend their days protecting the animals as best they can and nights dealing with paperwork and repairs to their sprawling properties.
“No one can plan for a drought of this severity,” says Morris, who wants to sell up and move on. His 24,000-acre farm has been on the market for two years without a buyer. With a wife and four kids to support, Morris has had to take on a local government job to pay the bills and now only works the farm on the weekends. His mother, Lorrain, 73, oversees the weekdays while juggling a job at a nursing home.
From financial strain to loss of livestock, drought strain takes a grave toll on mental health. Morris’ breaking point came in 2014. He was mustering his sheep from an empty reservoir to a fresh one, when several ewes simply laid under a tree and died before his eyes.
“This just isn’t fair,” he recalls thinking. “[I’m] trying to do everything [I] can to look after them… I’m trying to save this thing’s life, and I’ve just killed it. That was the trigger for me. That was when I when I said, ‘I’m not well.’”
Depression has become increasingly common in the bush, and research shows that farmers are among the highest risk groups for suicide. On average, people in remote Australia die from suicide at twice the rate of city residents.
“You can’t witness that much death and destruction of everything you work for without it weighing on you,” says Morris.
Inevitably, the young are leaving. “There’s nobody out here,” says Jim Skinner, 17, resting in the shade of a campsite from the midday heat. He’s assisting his father with a cattle drive, but will head to Sydney in the fall to study law. “No matter how hard you work, you still can’t make it rain,” he says of outback life.
“Kids that have grown up in the bush and seen what their parents faced — the ones with any brains are packing up their gear and going,” laments his dad, Billy Skinner, 54, from Warialda, NSW. “The bush is losing its children.”
In an alarming new report, UNICEF says children are “struggling under significant pressures” due to the drought. Increased farm work, less time for homework, financial woes and tense homes, children are shouldering responsibilities beyond their age and “feel powerless to do anything to alleviate the suffering around them.”
‘A canary in the coal mine’
Even though only 1.2% of Australia’s 25 million work in farming, the vast red hinterland looms large in the collective psyche. Many see its inhabitants as representing the self-reliance and individualism that define the national character. “A lot people think [the outback] is really romantic,” says Bullen. “It can be. But then it can be hell sometimes too.”
Last January was one of the worst times. Bullen’s husband Gus, 52, hopped on a motorbike to check on livestock in the paddock. Returning home, he drove into barbed wire left out for a new fence. “We raced him to the hospital with the middle of his face hanging off,” says Bullen.
He was out of work for eight months. In the meantime, drought conditions blew out the farm’s debt to $430,000. Running it alone, Bullen couldn’t visit Gus at the hospital. Their daughter, Kathleen, 16, was pulled out of boarding school.
Gus has since resumed work as a contract fencer, but the family still relies on donated groceries and livestock feed. “We’ve been really lucky,” he says of the support, which has helped to relieve them of the $470 per ton they were paying for feed — triple what it costs when there’s been rain. “The biggest thing that’s let us down is the government, really. They’ve done nothing for us.”
The government has in fact made efforts. On top of a $1.3 billion boost to relief in August, a $3.6 billion fund was created in December to invest in drought-busting infrastructure and technology. But it amounts to treating symptoms rather than the underlying disease of climate change, which will likely cause wider, systemic detriments to the farming industry. “Aussie farmers have always had to be adaptable,” says Hughes of the Climate Council. “But we may get to the point where climate change over the next few decades will be something you can’t adapt to.”
The Australian government officially acknowledges the reality of global warming, but climate-change skepticism is still endemic in Australian politics. Many conservatives want the country to follow the U.S. in quitting the Paris Agreement on carbon emissions. In August, Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged to a group of farmers that “the climate is changing. Everybody knows that.” But, he added, “I don’t think that’s part of this debate.”
Yet the extreme weather that comes with climate change is set to further isolate rural communities. The Climate Council projects that by 2030, winter and spring rainfall will decrease by an additional 15%. Under the most extreme scenario, parts of the country would see rainfall halve by late this century, potentially crippling its wheat industry. “Climate change puts lives and livelihoods at risk, and that happens everywhere,” Howden says. “We are a canary in the coal mine.”
Back on the farm, Bullen is home alone. Tomorrow she’ll be up at 5 a.m. to feed the sheep, loading the truck with hay and dropping the bales all over the vast property in the scorching heat. The task will take her hours. “I know people say ‘Just walk off,’ but it’s not that simple,” she says of the farm, which has been in Gus’ family for over a century. “If we knew the drought was going to last six years, I’m sure we would have all done things differently.”
She still has her bad days and her breakdowns, she says. She’s lost a lot of weight from the stress, and her resilience is “absolutely” wearing thin. So what would it take for her to walk away? “Gus and I talk about it all the time,” she says. “Another 12 months, we might pull the pin. But then we keep saying to ourselves, what if it rains?”
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