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Australian Farmers Face Suicide Risk as Multi-Year Drought Turns from ‘Crisis’ to ‘Marathon’

Enhanced Liime/Twitter

A brutal, multi-year drought brought on by climate change is taking its toll on the mental health of Australia’s farmers, just as it has in India, leading to higher suicide rates as farm incomes and the communities that depend on them suffer.

“A University of California at Berkeley study two years ago claimed [1] that droughts drove about 60,000 Indian farmers to suicide over a period of 30 years,” the Washington Post reports. “Now, Australia’s predicament suggests that drought-related mental health problems can also beset a country whose universal health care system is widely hailed as one of the world’s best.”

The Post adds that, “increasingly, those seeking help for such problems in drought-hit communities here are not just the farmers, but the local shop owners, truck drivers, chefs, and others who are also eventually hurt by the slowing of regional economies.”

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A map accompanying the story shows the drastic reduction in rainfall across parts of Australia between 1999 and 2018. The Post begins its coverage in Elong Elong, a community of 100 about 365 kilometres north of Sydney, where people recently had to line up on a record-hot summer day to receive government aid through a Catholic charity.

“Australia’s farmers are known for their resilience and business savvy, and many are still turning a profit,” the Post states. “But thousands of others face the same issues as Elong Elong’s tightknit populace. Some here have talked about moving away,” while others—the friends and neighbours that local volunteer Louise Hennessy worries about the most—have just withdrawn from community life.

“Local health authorities, meanwhile, say they have recorded a surge in depression and other mental health problems, as well as an uptick in alcoholism—trends observed in drought-stricken regions across Australia and elsewhere.”

“Crisis isn’t the word we use,” said Camilla Kenny, a government mental health worker based in the city of Dubbo, about 30 kilometres from Elong Elong. “We keep saying it’s a marathon.”

Yet the country’s epically unstable [3] and unresponsive [4] conservative government has refused to reduce emissions or acknowledge the climate crisis, even though “its own research institutes warn that Australia will be among the nations most severely affected by climate change,” the Post writes. “So far, droughts and floods are only two of many reasons some Australian farmers struggle: The others include tariffs and currency fluctuations. But the impact of global warming is expected to intensify in coming decades.”

Australia has warmed by 1.0°C over the last century, and “unless emissions are drastically reduced, scientists say, extreme temperature events that now occur about every 20 years could strike almost annually by the end of the century. More devastating floods combined with longer droughts will turn yet more fertile land barren. For Australia’s rural mental health professionals, that makes their work a marathon that may never end.”

“What’s frightening is that the things people have been doing for centuries in times of drought, including cutting spending—those solutions are starting to crack after a certain period of time,” said Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology resilience researcher Lauren Rickards.

Another recent Post article points to food production as a key piece of the climate crisis that extends around the world—and is now shifting from developing to more developed economies. In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, growing fruit trees “has always been a high-wire act as peaches, plums, apples, and pears race to flower in early spring while dodging a killing frost,” writes [5] gardening reporter Adrian Higgins. “But researchers across the United States say the milder winters of a changing climate are inducing earlier flowering of temperate tree fruits, exposing the blooms and nascent fruit to increasingly erratic frosts, hail, and other adverse weather.”

Consumers aren’t seeing the collapse yet, as food distributors balance a collapse in one area with a bumper crop from elsewhere. “But unless breeders can produce more climate-resilient varieties, fruit-growing regions of the United States will be seriously disrupted by future warming scenarios, scientists say.”

“The consumer will begin to know it’s happening in the coming 10 to 20 years,” said University of California plant physiologist and farm advisor Katherine Jarvis-Shean.

While plant breeders are hard at work on new varieties, “even the problem-solvers are having problems,” the Post adds. Last year, a team at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station in West Virginia “were able to conduct the controlled pollination they needed to keep their breeding program going. However, in each of the preceding four years, freezes killed virtually all the blossoms and brought years of hybridization work to a halt. As a backup, they moved some of their breeding stock to a commercial nursery in Adams County, PA, where the season is later.”

Now, the plant breeders are hoping for a frost-free April.

It isn’t that spring blossom freezes never happened in the past, explained USDA researcher Mark Demuth. “But to have it happen in back-to-back-to-back years, it’s never happened before in the 23 years I’ve been doing this here. To lose four years in a row? Yeah, heartbreaking.”