By Elise Anderson (Regional Lead, Rural and Regional Program)
I live on Taungurung country, in north east Victoria. It’s a region of river valleys and alpine mountains, farmland and towering mountain ash forests. My little town of not quite 3000 people sits almost in the shadow of the mighty dam wall that holds back the waters of Lake Eildon, a body of water six times the size of Sydney Harbour. It’s a paradise for wine lovers, waterskiers, cyclists and fly-fishing enthusiasts. It’s a truly wonderful place to live, work and raise a family.
Like most parts of rural Australia, however, my community is very much at the mercy of the elements, and that means that the impacts of climate change are an everyday reality. This is a region that is no stranger to natural disasters. In 2009 the Black Saturday bushfires devastated this area. Vast tracts of forest were burnt, homes were lost, and people died in unthinkable numbers. I wasn’t living here at the time, but everyone I know in this community who was, has a story to tell of their personal connection to tragedy; of property destroyed, of friends and family lost.
Popular local tourist attraction Steavenson's Falls after the Black Saturday bushfires
Just over a year ago, a seemingly opposite disaster occurred, when huge amounts of spring rain, following several years of mild and wet La Nina weather, caused Lake Eildon to fill beyond capacity, and forced local water authorities to open the spillway. Megalitres of water poured into the Goulburn River, adding to levels already swollen from tributaries across the catchment, and the river burst its banks. We didn’t lose any people in those floods, thankfully, but vast areas of farmland went under, roads were cut, and many stock were lost, including hundreds of thousands of trout from local fish farms.
Flooding on the Goulburn River, Oct 2022
It was a scenario that locals thought they would never see again after the millennium drought at the start of this century; in 2007 water levels in Lake Eildon were as low as 5.7%, leaving enormous tracts of lake bed exposed to the elements, a cracked and baking desert of dried mud and dead trees. Talk at the time was that the lake might never refill. How wrong we were. While the currently full dam is a reassurance to irrigators all down the Goulburn-Murray system, with another El Nino declared and a hot dry summer ahead, the current question on everyone’s lips is, how long will that water last?
This is a resilient community, and in the face of each drought, each fire, each flood, the people here dust themselves off, rally together, and get on with their lives. Every disaster leaves its mark, however. When the rain falls, and keeps falling, people obsessively check their weather apps, and all the talk in the main street is of the water level in the lake, the outflow rates, the prospect of flooding. When the first hints of smoke scent the air from distant fires each summer, there is a simmering sense of anxiety in the atmosphere of the town, a collective trauma that rises closer to the surface of everyday life.
The economic welfare of this region is highly dependent on the elements, too. Our main industries are agriculture, tourism, and native forestry. The first of these is obviously very dependent on the weather. The second, tourism, is no less so; no-one comes to Lake Eildon to waterski or laze on a houseboat in drought years when there is little water in the lake, cyclists don’t want to ride our rail trails in heatwave conditions, and wine that is tainted by bushfire smoke is no drawcard. And as for forestry, well, that is coming to a rapid end, a step that is necessary for our forests and our climate, but one which is pushing the community into a painful transition period that will be faced by many towns reliant on timber, coal or gas for their livelihoods.
No, climate change is no stranger to towns like mine, and neither is it a hypothetical future scenario. Rural and regional communities everywhere across Australia have this very much in common; climate change is here, right now, impacting our everyday lives. Our work, our leisure, and our safety are all at risk.
As much as this is something that they all have in common, however, it is also true that communities outside of our major cities are as diverse as the landscapes in which they are located, and the people who live in them. The nature of the threat that climate change poses will be different in every town, on every farm, in each area of habitat.
At Vets for Climate Action we recognise that rural and regional areas are at the coalface of climate change, but that there is also the potential for much opportunity as the nation makes the essential transition away from polluting and destructive practices, towards the development of renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, and sustainable industries. We also understand that there are no cookie cutter solutions to this wicked problem. The strategies and solutions that will most benefit my Victorian, agriculture-dependent community in its transition away from native timber harvesting will not be the same as what is required in a coal mining community in central Queensland.
That is why VfCA’s Rural and Regional Program seeks to elevate the voices of local people. We want to give vets and other veterinary and animal care professionals in our country towns and small cities skills and confidence in climate advocacy, and connections with others who share their concerns. This will enable them to identify and support action on climate change that is best suited to their own local context, acting as climate champions both within their communities, and with their elected representatives.
It’s something of a big and hairy plan, we know, but it’s a program that I am personally very passionate about, and a program that occupies an important place in VfCA’s strategic plan. The Rural and Regional Program is in its very early days, with a pilot version having begun in the federal electorate of Nicholls, in northern Victoria, earlier this year.
I’ll be using this blog to keep our supporters up to date with the progress of the program as I travel about regional Victoria and beyond, visiting vet clinics, attending events, and meeting the people who are caring for all of our precious animals in the face of climate change. I’ll look forward to sharing their stories with you.