Australian farmers face ruin as five-year drought worsens

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The Independent Online

They prayed for rain at two ecumenical church services in Wagga Wagga last week, but the only response was isolated showers.

The people who farm in that region of south-western New South Wales are accustomed to drought. There are good years and bad years that cancel each other out. But the last five years have brought only bad times.

Australia is in the grip of its worst drought for a century. With a long, hot southern hemisphere summer in prospect, the reservoirs are already dry, the river beds are cracked and empty, and farmers are in despair.

"We're in uncharted territory," said Bernard Whyte, a grain and livestock farmer from 35 miles north of Wagga Wagga. "I don't think anybody has a clue what to do." Crops are failing and, with paddocks reduced to dust-bowls, livestock are being sold in record numbers. Areas in southern and south-eastern Australia have been worst hit, with pitifully low rainfall. Now 92 per cent of New South Wales is in drought. The Prime Minister, John Howard, has announced an extra A$350m (£140m) in aid for farmers. A Mental health group, Beyondblue, said a farmer is committing suicide every four days.