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Stories from the Drought

The prolonged drought has devastated local communities far beyond the implementation of tough water restrictions.

In November last year Western NSW Community Legal Centre (WNSWCLC) solicitor, Hannah Robinson, pulled together first-hand accounts from those battling on the frontline. The submission formed part of the Inquiry into Support for Drought Affected Communities in New South Wales and outlined potential government action to alleviate the burden.

The impact of the NSW drought on WNSWCLC clients, their families, and communities has seen a spike in employment law matters - including redundancies resulting from the drought - credit and debt problems, and social security and Centrelink issues. The submission identified three key impacts: loss of employment opportunities; increased cost of living; and cultural and social disruption. Some examples are outlined below:

1. Loss of employment

“Keith Glover is the owner of K&H Glover, a family-owned and operated Honda garage in Coonamble, 160 kilometres north of Dubbo. Keith spoke to WNSWCLC about the strain that he felt small business owners were under as a result of the drought. He explained that 70-80% of his business was dependent on the rural industry, including the sale and service of farm vehicles, and estimated that sales had dropped by 90% in recent years as a direct result of the drought because people do not have money to spend. However, despite the accumulating losses on his balance sheet and increasing uncertainty over the future, Keith is doing everything he can to avoid letting his staff go, including paying himself less than what he would receive if he sold the business and applied for the tax-payer funded aged pension.”

2. Increasing cost of living

“Surging power prices have been an issue and continue to be a concern across Australia. However, people in regional and remote NSW are bearing the brunt, with regional families paying up to 25 percent more for electricity than their city counterparts… No specific figures were provided for remote western region towns including Gilgandra, Coonamble, Coonabarabran, Warren, Nyngan, Walgett, Lightning Ridge, Bourke, Brewarrina or Cobar. (However) many of WNSWCLC’s clients, and others in these areas, report paying over $1,000 per quarter ($4,000 per annum) for electricity alone and say that energy costs are continuing to rise. WNSWCLC is providing an increasing number of advices to clients who simply do not have the means to pay their power bills. Some clients are receiving disconnection warning notices from their power companies advising that if they do not pay their bills their power will be turned off.”

3. Social and cultural impacts

“For many regional towns, water is not only vital for the town’s economic viability but is also at the heart of social and cultural life. In Bourke, when the Darling River is in flow, the river and surrounding areas are alive and buzzing as children and adults alike swim, splash and laugh in the cooling waters, a welcome reprieve from the scorching heat of 40-50 degree days. Through the summer holidays the river keeps local school kids cool, safe, entertained and out of trouble. However, when the river runs dry, this social hub is completely disbanded. Families retreat to houses where fans and overworked air-conditioners provide a poor alternative to the comfort and social interaction available at the river. Those that can afford it seek refuge at the local pool. However, for many the pool is not a viable alternative, at least not every day. Although the $2 entry fee may not some burdensome, for parents looking to entertain multiple children the costs add up. In January 2019, Bourke recorded 21 consecutive days above 40 degrees. For a family of five, the total cost to enter the pool each day over this 21-day period would have been $210 (or, if they had the funds and foresight to buy a season pass, $165).”

Read the entire submission on our Law Reform page.

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