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Getting The Water: It’s Not Over Yet

Across Australia today many people are still homeless from the flood waters of the past three months.

FloodSome are living in tents. Many have no income. Numerous businesses have been destroyed, taking with them the livelihoods of employers and employees.

In the worst cases, people have died and homes have been completely destroyed. Unknown numbers of people now live in homes with structural damage, damp and mould. Countless items of furniture and household appliances have been destroyed. The pictures and documents destroyed by the water reinforce the pain and the loss of control. Vehicles lost to the floods ensure that basic transport is a daily problem.

The most common question these people ask of one another is about insurance. Most are still waiting for some word from their insurers. Most know they will assuredly come out behind.

And yet the attention of the nation has apparently moved on. There’s a carbon tax debate to be had. Sports buffoons fill our screens nightly. International events occupy some.

Life goes on but for many it has stalled.

For me, water has been ever-present. I’m a child of irrigation, having grown up on a grape-growing block in the Mildura district. The routines of a life on the land were never more apparent than when we “got the water”.

These regular events controlled everything else. First, the water-ganger would visit and the precise day and time of the irrigation would be set. My father would spend days on a tractor furrowing out the rows of sultanas and other vines. The temporary furrows guided the water from the outlet at the top of each row. Monitoring the flow of water required 24-hour attention. A full-scale watering might take a whole week. We never holidayed at Christmas because we always got the water on Boxing Day.

The irrigation process has changed over the decades. Some use sprays instead of the inundation of the furrows. What’s changed is the governance of water. The interconnected problems of the Murray-Darling Basin have invaded the irrigation districts with an unsettling debate about the environment and water management. It’s a visceral issue and I’ve often thought country people have a more finely-tuned awareness of the importance of politics than their city counterparts because they’re more likely to experience its direct impact on their lives.

Irrigation water from the great Murray River put food on the table and enabled my education. But the water from the sky was just as important. Prolonged rains at the wrong time of year meant a lost or damaged harvest. I can still see the look on my father’s face decades ago when a morning inspection confirmed the near total destruction of the crop from an overnight deluge. A year’s work and income was taken by an overnight storm.

It happened again this year in Mildura. The family block, farmed now by my brother, lost at least half of its output, the result of a month of rain unprecedented in the area’s history. In the old language, 8 inches in a weekend, and around 13 inches for the month of January, laid waste to the crop.

I haven’t lived there since I was a teenager. But you never lose the sense of what’s happening to the place you grew up in. The Sunraysia district has been buffeted for years by the bastardry of rapacious wineries. The dried fruit grower cooperatives have given way to corporations governed from afar. ‘Door’ prices for growers have declined. Once regular payments are now irregular. Water trading and restricted allocations have cast doubt over the future of a once stable industry. The ferocity of this year’s weather seems an unduly cruel imposition.

Even those not on the land got caught by the downpours. My elderly aunt was one of hundreds evacuated in the Irymple township. We chuckled at the description of her being piggy-backed to dry land by a State Emergency Service worker. Weeks later, she remains billeted with a generous local.

I got the water too, but not in the controlled, beneficial manner I was used to as a child.

At 8.05pm on February 4, life was normal. At 8.30pm, I was looking for somewhere to live.

A storm was forecast. I welcomed it for its promise of banishing the humidity that settled on Melbourne that week.

When the downpour hit I went to the front door to look, as we tend to do at such times. The front garden was already a lake. Three teenagers larking about in the street beat a hasty retreat as the waters converted the road into a river and cars began floating away.

By 8.15pm the water lapped at my front step. I was on the phone. I’m told the tone of my voice changed as I turned around to see water seeping up through the polished floorboards. And I’ll never forget the sight of water bubbling up under the carpets in other rooms.

Water is a silent, insinuating, relentless enemy. It always finds the path of least resistance. By 8.20pm it had captured my home from all sides simultaneously. In minutes it rendered the house unliveable, whilst I sloshed around in two feet of water saving what I could. It stayed for a couple of hours to savour its victory. Then it disappeared under the house and made us spend the weekend pumping it out.

The water took with it most of my furniture. Just about everything swelled and split. The major appliances were destroyed. Four hundred books and dozens of files and records from a lifetime’s work had to be thrown out. A piano. A beautiful desk. But I was lucky. The personal things, the photographs, the assorted memories of life past, were all up higher and untouched.

Like a dozen of my neighbours, I’m gone and living elsewhere now. Dozens more in neighbouring streets are also gone.

In every conversation we all tell each other that things could have been worse. No-one died. To the best of my knowledge, no-one was injured. No-one is missing. We all acknowledge that things were far worse in Queensland. And Christchurch.

No-one is looking for sympathy or over-stating their situation. But there’s a pervading sense of grief and loss just the same.

It’s fascinating to experience something like this from the inside. For the past month I’ve lived a nomadic existence, finding alternative accommodation, and dealing with a vast array of government bureaucracy, tradesmen, utility companies, real estate agents, insurance people and the like. It’s been a useful reminder of how blinkered and narrow one’s view of the world can become.

A visit to the Victorian Department of Human Services was an experience. “We normally deal with child protection matters here,” I was told. After the tick-box form was filled out, I was presented with a handwritten cheque for $427, drawn on the Disaster Recovery Account. More high-tech, Centrelink electronically deposited $1,000 into my bank account. At least I won’t have to pay the flood levy, someone told me, now that I’m officially a victim.

I got the water a week after Gillard delivered her Australia Day speech about mateship. She would have been pleased with my street that night. The people from Number 24 collected all the pets and provided support to many. A woman called Sabi called several times to see if I needed anything. A young man called Bala checked up on me. Previously unknown neighbours introduced themselves. One provided a pump. The weekend clean-up almost had a carnival atmosphere. Without the help of a number of good friends, I would never have managed everything on my own.

Tip O’Neill’s adage that “all politics is local” was borne out. Visiting Glen Eira Council representatives who blamed Melbourne Water for not maintaining the stormwater drain were criticised by residents. Buck-passing got a mention.

In 10 years I’ve only ever been doorknocked once – by the Greens – but a week after the flood I was door-knocked by the Mayor. She gave me a photocopy of a Red Cross booklet titled “How To Clean Up After An Emergency”. It seemed a touch too little and a tad late. She worried about whether the insurance companies would be able to survive the spate of disasters nationwide. That worry has certainly been keeping me awake at nights…

The new State Liberal member left a “sorry I missed you” card in the letterbox. Even though this is Bentleigh, the seat that delivered Ted Baillieu his one-seat majority government, I didn’t bother ringing back.

In the aftermath of the water, I read few newspapers and saw almost no television. The car radio and an iPad application gave me access to ABC radio and I was reminded that you really don’t need much else to stay informed. For a dedicated news junkie like me, avoiding the usual media trivia and the cacophony of babbling voices was surprisingly welcome.

Tony Abbott’s “shit happens” moment took place around this time. Gillard was said to be on the attack, winning some battles and steadying her listing ship. Through it all, my sense of the inaccuracy and irrelevance of much of what passes for news and political commentary was reinforced.

I got off lightly. All I lost was just stuff.

Weeks after the flooding, however, I encountered a couple of my former neighbours. Both were agitated, frustrated, even angry. Unlike me, they lost their cars and the lack of mobility made life even more difficult. They felt as if their lives were turned upside down, the insurance companies didn’t care, and everyone else had tired of their predicament. There was anger about the scavengers rifling through our broken belongings on the nature strip.

This feeling of aloneness and loss of control undoubtedly exists elsewhere. In northern Victoria, there are farmers still flooded off their properties. Some expect to be surrounded by water for most of the year. There are residents in townships still hemmed in by water. Further north, whole communities have been devastated.

Spare a thought for all these people who got the water. It’s not over yet.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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