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Bourke feels the heat of the drought -

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Bourke feels the heat of the drought

Reporter: Paul Lockyer

KERRY O'BRIEN: Welcome to the program. For the past week, barely a day has passed without another
dire warning about the impact the drought will have on the nation. The emerging economic and social
costs could be huge. Today, the Prime Minister pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in extra
drought relief, and we'll examine that package shortly. One of the most worrying assessments of the
present drought from the scientists at the National Climate Centre has all but ruled out any hope
of relief in the short term, and the short to medium term picture of the nation's most vital river
system, the Murray Darling basin, remains bleak. None of this comes as a surprise to the people of
Bourke on the banks of the Darling in western New South Wales. The drought has literally been
squeezing the life out of the outback town. From Bourke, Paul Lockyer filed this report.

PAUL LOCKYER: It's not unusual for the Darling River to stop flowing, but it's happening with much
greater frequency. The river has now begun drying out below the weir at Bourke, sounding a new
alarm in a drought that has intensified its hold over much of the continent.

WAYNE O'MALLEY, BOURKE MAYOR: I was born here and have seen many dry spells and reasonably major
droughts but this one is the daddy of them all, because it's gone on for so long and has been so

PAUL LOCKYER: Bourke has a reputation as a tough outback town, but this drought is testing even the
strongest in the community.

SHARON KNIGHT, RURAL COUNSELLOR: And it's really sad, because having grown up here you know what a
wonderful town it is and just to see the people within it, feelings going down and they're sadder
and that type of thing, it really hurts.

PAUL LOCKYER: Pain generated by acute water shortages that are stifling the irrigation industries
that support Bourke.

STEVE BUSTER: We should see tractors running, people running, things moving and things growing, but
right now we see few weeds and very dry country.

PAUL LOCKYER: Steve Buster's father Jack pioneered cotton growing in Bourke 40 years ago. A huge
family enterprise has since been created. But there'll be no cotton crop this summer and the future
is grim.

STEVE BUSTER: It'd be nice to see water right there and everywhere in between in the 400 hectares
of it. But as you can see, there's not a drop to be found.

PAUL LOCKYER: The Buster family has now put the property on the market, adding to the uncertainty
surrounding the future of Bourke.

STEVE BUSTER: On this farm alone we've lost 30 people since April, and there's more that will go
between now and the end of the drought. So all that means is less people, less buying power, less
doctors, less teachers, less in the community. And it's got to have an impact.

PAUL LOCKYER: There'll be little water for Bourke's horticultural industry either. That'll deprive
the economy of the annual influx of up to 300 annual workers for the orchards. Before this drought
deepened, Bourke was already reeling from a string of dry years. A major economic study just
produced for the New South Wales Government charts that dramatic decline in agricultural production
and in employment in the region. And it has this depressing conclusion unless the drought breaks
soon and/or some form of assistance is provided, the Bourke economy and the community will become
an economic and social disaster. Bourke, it says, is on the brink.

SAM MAROULIS, FARM SUPPLIER: It's almost a downward spiral. It's really hard work. It's hard for
the community.

SAM MAROULIS: So you'll need one for your tap.


SAM MAROULIS: You'll need two for each filter.

PAUL LOCKYER: Sam Maroulis has watched the family irrigation and fertiliser supply company decline
almost every year since 1999.

SAM MAROULIS: We're about 90 per cent down in sales. So we're surviving off 10 per cent of our
sales in the late '90s.

PAUL LOCKYER: And staff?

SAM MAROULIS: Again in '99 we had 13 full time staff in here, all these offices were full. We had
guys out in the merchandise area, drivers, agronomists. We're now, besides myself, I've got one
full time staff member here.

PAUL LOCKYER: For 33 years Culhane's family outfitters have served the Bourke community. Bob
Culhane is determined to keep his doors open, but admits it will be tough.

BOB CULHANE: Because it hasn't rained in the last few weeks means it's yet another 12 months before
any real prosperity or prospective employment will be gained and it's the employment that keeps the
shops and the industries, service industries going. So yeah, we look like being 12 months down the
track even if it rained tomorrow.

WAYNE O'MALLEY: There's no prospect of any flows in the river for them to be able to plant a cotton
crop this year. That has had a huge impact on morale and the people's likelihood of any immediate
relief in what's been a long drought.

PAUL LOCKYER: When Wayne O'Malley took over as Bourke's mayor he was confident he'd see the drought
out in his time in office. That was six years ago, six terms ago, and the water shortages make the
challenges bigger than ever.

WAYNE O'MALLEY: That really has driven at the nail into the coffin as far as any future cash flow
for our local economy goes.

SAM MAROULIS: Customers that come into the shop are very negative. It's just a tough time generally
and it's tough to survive.

SHARON KNIGHT: So the social fabric of the community you're seeing is really eroding and it's
really sad.

PAUL LOCKYER: As the daughter of the Bourke grazier, rural counsellor Sharon Knight has an intimate
knowledge of the pressures being felt in her community. People often turn to her first.

SHARON KNIGHT: You see people cry and even the strongest people. You see people cry because it's
just, "Where am I going to go? What am I going to do?" I guess they have their cry and then we can
and probably they've been holding that in for a long time.

WAYNE O'MALLEY: I think there's a lot of silent sufferers out there putting on a brave face. Inside
they'd be hurting very much.

PAUL LOCKYER: And if the long term weather forecasts are correct, the people of Bourke will have
even bigger problems to confront a drought that extends into yet another year.

WAYNE O'MALLEY: I wouldn't even like to think what the fallout would be if it doesn't rain by the
end of summer and not only for this area, but for all of the Australian continent that's suffering
from this drought at the moment.

BOB CULHANE: We've just got to live with what happens at this point in time. No one can change it
and no one can make a difference except the old fella up there that might send us some rain.