It has been three parched years since any dairy farm walk that Adlington can remember. Instead, there are morale-boosting events with upbeat monikers like Tackling Tough Times or Blokes' Day Out—or Pamper Day, which Adlington's wife happens to be attending today. At Pamper Day, a few dozen farming women receive free massages and pedicures and hairstyling advice. A drought-relief worker serves the women tea and urges them to discuss what's on their minds. They all share different chapters of the same story.
"It's been two years without a crop."
"The family farm is on its knees."
"We sold most of our sheep stock—beautiful animals we'd had for 20 years."
"I can't stand lying in bed every night and hearing the cattle bellow from hunger."
Still, the most poignant gatherings are out of public view. One takes place in a modest farmhouse near Swan Hill. A government rural financial counselor sits at the kitchen table, advising a middle-aged stone-fruit farmer and his wife to declare bankruptcy, since their debt exceeds the value of their farm and a hailstorm has just ravaged their crop.
Holding his wife's hand, tears leaking out of his eyes, the farmer manages to get out the words: "I have absolutely nothing to go on for."
The woman says she checks every couple of hours to make sure her husband is not lying in his orchard with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his head. When the meeting is over, the counselor adds their names to a suicide watch list.
Back in Barham, Malcolm Adlington sits alone in his truck going nowhere—watching his herd dwindle, his meadows receding into desert scrubland. All he can do is watch.
The world's most arid inhabited continent is perilously low on water. Beyond that simple fact, nothing about Australia's water crisis is straightforward. Though Australians have routinely weathered dry spells, the current seven-year drought is the most devastating in the country's 117 years of recorded history. The rain, when it does fall, seems to have a spiteful mind of its own—snubbing the farmlands during winter crop-sowing season, flooding the towns of Queensland, and then spilling out to sea. To many, the erratic precipitation patterns bear the ominous imprint of a human-induced climate shift. Global warming is widely believed to have increased the frequency and severity of natural disasters like this drought. What seems indisputable is that, as Australian environmental scientist Tim Kelly puts it, "we've got a three-quarters of a degree [Celsius] increase in temperature over the past 15 years, and that's driving a lot more evaporation from our water. That's climate change."