In Murrurundi, residents are wishing Jesus would turn wine into water. In the middle of what has been called the worst drought in living memory, the town’s water is running out fast.
The town, located in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales about four hours’ drive north of Sydney, has been on severe water restrictions since early July, down to 140 litres per person a day. In Sydney, the average person’s water consumption is more than double that, at 295 litres per day.
Upper Hunter Shire Mayor Wayne Bedggood called the restrictions “emergency measures”. The water level in Murrurundi Dam has fallen to less than five metres and estimates suggest the town will run out of water by Christmas.
But when I speak to Barbara Morgan, a local Anglican priest, I could feel her smiling over the phone.
“We had rain yesterday!” she exclaimed. “It’s just brought a smile to everyone’s face.”
Of course, the roughly 20ml of rain Murrurundi received last week is nowhere near the amount needed to break the severe drought that has been declared across 100 per cent of New South Wales.
“But it gives people hope,” says Barbara.
Barbara’s church, St John’s Anglican, prays for rain every Sunday. The church hall is being used as a regional depot for a food drive organised by the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle and local efforts to offer struggling farmers food packages to help them get by.
She says people in her congregation who live on the land really just need other people to talk to.
“We’re following up with people who aren’t making it to church and just asking the question: are you OK?” – Barbara Morgan
“I think Australians have that attitude of, ‘I’ll be OK. We’re too proud to ask for help.’ So, I see my role as just listening out for things that come up in conversation – small ways I can help.”
She recalled a conversation recently where it became clear a farmer needed some help to pay for petrol to get into town.
“They’re looking out and seeing desolate paddocks, struggling animals. Farmers are having to sell their stock. It’s dry everywhere. We’re running out of water. So now it’s really about listening and being aware of how each other is going. We’re following up with people who aren’t making it to church and just asking the question: are you OK?”
Another 400km and four hours north of Murrurundi, in North Star, Jenny and Ran Mitchell are feeling the dry heat.
The couple grow faba beans, chickpeas, bread wheat and durum wheat, and told Eternity News that “the land itself is battling to survive.”
“Our own faith has continued to grow, as has our awareness of the responsibility, privilege, satisfaction and joy of being custodians of an amazing part of God’s creation.” – Ran Mitchell
“There are very few crops; some dry sown crops that germinated are slowly dying back into the ground. Some of the trees have died and more will die if there is not widespread rain of more than 100ml over a week of rain,” said Ran.
Ran and Jenny worked as drought support workers for Bush Church Aid and Anglicare for 18 months during the last severe drought in New South Wales. Jenny says that role was a privilege, and enabled them to meet and pray for many people, plenty of whom were “not used to prayer.”
“But they were only too happy to join in prayer for strength to cope with their situation,” she says. “The emotions and issues that were shared with us seemingly knew no bounds.”
Living on the land, says Ran, has taught the couple to depend on God at all times.
“Our own faith has continued to grow, as has our awareness of the responsibility, privilege, satisfaction and joy of being custodians of an amazing part of God’s creation.
“Our personal struggles during drought are how best to use our time and energy, and to concentrate on looking for the positives,” said Ran. “Like, the wonder and beauty to be seen in a dust-enhanced red sunset.”
“People living on properties are acutely aware of the suffering animals they are in a position to care for.” – Ran Mitchell
Ran and Jenny offered some tips for churches looking to support the farmers in their communities. While no longer working in an official capacity as drought support workers, the couple still try to attend as many events as possible where people from the North Star community are gathered and just “letting people talk.”
“Personal, face-to-face time spent with people experiencing hardship because of drought is appreciated as much, if not more, than monetary assistance,” they say.
On the other hand, church “events” that require farmers to travel into town are often very unhelpful in times of drought, says Ran.
“People who are feeding stock are often exhausted and do not have the energy to get dressed up and go to town for a function. Also, travelling costs money and it is not a necessary expense just to go to a talk.”
Isolation can often become a problem during droughts, with farmers unwilling to leave their farms.
“People living on properties are acutely aware of the suffering animals they are in a position to care for and because of drought are unable to do the caring. Some are reluctant to leave the scene of what they see as their responsibility,” says Ran.
With that in mind, the couple suggest that hosting smaller gatherings on a neighbour’s property, or personal visits (with prior warning!) can be much more valuable.
Bush Church Aid also suggested that purchasing vouchers for local shops to hand out to those in need can not only support the farmers in a practical way, but “also gives local businesses a boost”, which are often overlooked in times of drought.
To find out more about drought appeals being run by churches across the state, click the links below: