Havoc and misery of flooding

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G’day. Here we are in Sydney and guess what – it’s raining! Not really; it rained on Friday, but otherwise it is very nice and sunny, and the temperatures are in the mid to high twenties, not bad I hear you say.

Many of my friends and relatives commented on the long and arduous flight, but frankly once on that plane, I get this wonderful feeling that no-one can contact me; a freedom very rarely experienced in this modern age, and I could fly a lot further than Sydney! I find that it takes me three days before I am totally adjusted to the time zone and meal patterns, but that does not hamper any enjoyment during that time.

The weather in New South Wales and Queensland has been serious, with floods and huge rescue operations taking place when we arrived last week. From residents on the northern waterfronts of Sydney, north along the coast through Coffs Harbour, Lismore, Grafton, Brisbane, Gladstone; right up to Cairns, Cooktown and the Weipa area, ‘Hurricane Oswald’ delivered anything between 150mm of rain and 400mm, causing havoc.

The rain lasted about 36 hours, causing helicopter rescues, evacuation, and all the panic and misery that goes with the filth of flooding. The severity of flooding, especially in Bundaberg (which was badly flooded 2 years ago) was not anticipated by local authorities. The Queensland wet season runs from October to April, with the onset of the monsoon in late December, but unlike 2011 when the influence of La Nina had ensured a much stronger monsoon, drenching the catchments in December before the deluge arrived which then just ran off severely flooding huge areas, this time it was meant to be different; forecasters expected below average cyclone activity.

The emergence of ‘Oswald’ was not underrated as a threat to central Queensland, but the system’s severity and penetration were not well understood. The catchment in southeast Queensland was very dry due to low rainfall in December and January, and there was good damn capacity. Flash floods in the creeks this time round, adding to the general flood water coming down the rivers seems to have done the damage. Human lives were claimed, roads, shops, petrol stations closed, dozens of flights were cancelled, and thousands of livestock are missing, believed to have been swept down the rivers. Citrus and mango orchards were ripped up by the roots, and vineyard flattened; vegetables and fruit grown in the rich river plains such as the Lockyer Valley suffered devastating crop losses, which could now lead to higher prices in the shops.

Further north, cattle producers on the flooded Dee River have suffered severe losses; a helicopter ride over his 20,000 acre farm looking at his prized herd prompted Will Wilson to comment that many of his 4000 cattle were gone in the floods. The extent of livestock losses and cropping from the west of Rockhampton south to the Darling Downs and Goondiwindi remain unclear, as telecommunication and power lines are down and many of the farms are isolated. All this havoc and misery arrived over ‘Australian Day’ weekend, engulfing both states.

We often despair of our politicians in the UK with good reason, but spare a though for the Australians! Labour’s surprise (and very long) election campaign has got off to a rocky start, as no sooner than Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the campaign, that she found herself struggling to hang on to her Government with senior Ministerial resignations ripping her cabinet apart and also her personal support as Prime Minister has slumped against her rival Tony Abbott (who I found described on the internet as a confused conservative sexist!)

Green MP Adam Bandt is struggling with his ‘dole challenge’ (why do they do this), declaring that with $246.30 a week to live on, he cannot feed his dogs Max, and Albi; also (notice the order!) fiancée Claudia. After the first day he was down to $42 for the rest of the week (and he thinks he can contribute to running the country?), stating that he would be using public transport, but also an old car for one or two days in order to make the experience ‘more authentic’ (give me strength). He is of course only doing this for a week, rather than 6 months in order to make it truly authentic.

Before I left the UK last week I was increasingly concerned at the lack of progress in the dairy ‘Voluntary Agreement on contracts’ between farmers and dairy companies; especially as dairy UK (processor representative body) and its Director General Jim Begg seem to be in full ‘swamping’ mode. Jim Begg’s ability to delay and wear down his opponents through prevarication, endless meetings without progress and general malaise should not be underestimated. He is a wily and experienced campaigner, and will have set out to water down any obligations for his members within the agreement to a meaningless froth. The NFU and its coalition partners will need to bring determination and vim to the table, deciding when exactly to throw the toys out of the pram if Dairy UK do not deliver. Without serious determination, I can see months ahead being wasted as Jim swamps the discussions.

Arla UK are now substantially the biggest dairy company in the UK following the takeover on Milklink Co-op, with Dairy Crest a distant second since selling their ‘St Hubert’ brand and the closure of two plants last year, with Muller third (having taken over Wiseman Dairies). The only farmer owned Cop-op left from post Milk Marketing Board time is First Milk; six out of the biggest eleven dairy companies are foreign owned. Out of the top 65 dairy companies, 52 recorded operating margins of less than 5%, with 8 recording losses. Only 4 companies showed margins of above 10%, which shows what a low profit business dairy is in the UK.

Meanwhile I see that bTB vaccination of badgers in Wales has now reached £1 million, with every badger vaccination costing £662 per jab, and they say that there is a recession on! The Welsh Government in its infinite wisdom does not know what proportion of the badgers in its targeted area have been vaccinated, but admits that many are likely to be diseased and the vaccine will not therefore be effective. This is precisely what happens when you abandon science, looking to appear to be doing something, when in fact such appeasement helps no one; not the farmer, cow, taxpayer or the badger itself.

Meanwhile the value of cheese imported into the UK since 2009 has increased dramatically, with Ireland leading the way 382,000 tonnes (up from 323,000t), Germany 147,000t (up from 119,000t) and Denmark 101,500t (up from 71,400t). France surprisingly imported less, a drop from 254,000 tonnes to 223,000t (but still huge importers), whilst imports from the EU 27 countries as a whole rose from 1,135,000t in 2009 to 1,240,000t by 2011; a trade in total worth almost half a billion pounds.

Milk prices in most of these countries will have been higher during this period, and one has to ask why we fail so miserably in the UK to compete in Europe when it comes to cheese production and marketing.

Gwyn Jones