Climate change is receiving much attention, with evidence suggesting increased occurrence of cyclones, floods, temperature extremes, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Most of these are sudden-onset events – while the destruction may be substantial, the impact is clear and we can implement recovery services immediately. Slow onset events, such as drought, are more insidious and the impacts less well recognised. Yet the human cost of an extended drought is potentially more catastrophic than that resulting from sudden-onset disasters.
Australia is particularly susceptible to drought, with records showing that a ‘severe’ drought occurs in Australia approximately once every 18 years. The worst drought ever to affect Australia, however, has occurred in recent years – between 2003 and 2012 – with many regions still experiencing minimal rainfall and suffering from associated conditions such as soil erosion, salination, crop and herd disease, and fires.
Farming has been hit particularly hard, with the drought causing serious financial, social and personal hardship in rural areas. These communities are often stoic, resilient and resourceful, but the psychological impact of losing one’s livelihood, of no longer being able to work the land that has often been in the family for generations, can affect even the toughest people. The drought not only threatens their workplace, but also their homes, lifestyle, and in many cases, their very identity. Although the research is conflicting, there are reports of increased depression, anxiety, suicide, alcohol abuse, and relationship breakdown in rural areas. Prolonged drought can lead to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and inadequacy. It can also seriously damage the broader rural community, with reduced social engagement, lower morale, and increased social isolation.
In the long term, stoicism is not always helpful. The price may be unhelpful coping strategies such as denial, unwillingness to seek help, and a tendency to self-medicate with alcohol. Although many shrug off concerns, their coping strategies may place increased pressure on families and, in the long term, lead to even more losses and stressors.
There is no doubt that some positive outcomes can emerge from the adversity of drought, with some people reporting stronger friendships, family ties and community engagement as they survive the hardships together. For those who are not so lucky, however, it is crucial that effective material and psychological support – and, when required, mental health treatment – is easily accessible.