They are experiencing a fate highlighting the vagaries of nature.

The smashed remains of Kapernick's Bridge — with its bent guardrails and a hanging concrete slab where road once was — are as sure a sign as any that the Lockyer Valley's decade-long drought is finished.

Next door, at the vegetable farm of Steve Kluck, the same inland tsunami that last week smashed apart towns and killed more than a dozen people in the northeast Australian state of Queensland left a deep gouge in the earth covering nearly a hectare, or two acres. Water is now plentiful; soil, unfortunately, no longer is.

The cost of rebuilding and future losses is hard to calculate, Mr. Kluck said, but will probably be hundreds of thousands of dollars — still a pittance compared with the losses of some nearby farmers. And there is always the risk of more flooding as Australia's tropical wet season drags on.

“We're picking up all these sticks and rubbish **** up there, and she could all be ******back there in a week,” Mr. Kluck said. “We can't give you a figure” for losses, he said, “but it's just going to be a pain in the *** for the next 10 years.”

Intensive agriculture

Farmers like Mr. Kluck are among the worst hit in the multibillion-dollar economic toll of Australia's continuing flood crisis, which has affected a combined region of more than a million hectares in five states; in the worst-hit state, Queensland, flooding in regions with a land area more than double that of California has killed at least 28 people.

Even as victims in southern Queensland regions cleaned up in the wake of receding waters over the weekend, fresh floods struck in other areas of the country; in the state of Victoria, homes were inundated and more than 3,500 people were forced to evacuate, The Associated Press reported.

Buffeted by a cycle of dispiriting dry followed by overwhelming wet, the farmers are experiencing a fate highlighting the vagaries of Australia's extreme weather. At the same time, it is also adding fuel to a continuing debate over the future of intensive agriculture on a continent drier than all the others save Antarctica.

“Oh, mate, it's going to hurt us financially,” said Derek Schulz, who owns land downstream near the town of Grantham, which was largely destroyed in the flood. Where more than a week ago fields were ready for a fresh vegetable crop, there is now a plane of cracked mud and the scattered debris of crushed cars, tractors and torn homes.

“We're carrying a huge amount of debt, we're talking my wife and I carrying millions of dollars in debt. And to have a complete wipe-out, that's gonna hurt us,” he said.

Australian farming is a business of high expenditures and thin margins, and Mr. Schulz said he expected many from the town would give up.

Insurance will not cover many losses, and government assistance, including disaster grants of up to $25,000 and low-interest loans of up to $2,50,000, is a fraction of what is required to cover losses and start anew. But Mr. Schulz said he would probably take on fresh debt and return to the land.

“I've got this little saying, ‘I've got dirt under the fingernails.' And it's gonna be hard to get rid of that,” he said.

Issue of water availability

While some farmers may leave the land because of the floods, the bigger threat in the longer term is still likely to be a lack of water, said Chris Cocklin, an environmental scientist who is the deputy vice-chancellor of James Cook University in Queensland. Prior to the start of heavy rains late last year, a drought had gone on for more than a decade across the Murray-Darling basin, a massive irrigated river system in eastern Australia that is the country's most important agricultural area. In many areas, it would take years of significant rain to bring underground aquifers up to healthy levels, Mr. Cocklin said.

Mr. Cocklin warned that it was impossible to easily blame the latest floods on climate change. Rather, the immediate culprit is La Niña,+/- a Pacific weather pattern that has caused havoc from Brazil to Sri Lanka. But he said it was indisputable that, as a result of climate change, “these extremes are becoming more intensified” — meaning more severe, and longer, droughts.

As a result, Australia must consider a less water-intensive agricultural future, Mr. Cocklin said. “People have to accept that the game's changed,” he said, particularly in the case of water-hogging crops like rice and cotton.

“They're literally flooding the continent; you know, they're trying to copy monsoon Asia. You'd have to wonder if that's really a smart thing to be doing,” he said.

In response to the long drought, the government authority responsible for the Murray-Darling released a proposal in October to drastically reduce water consumption by irrigators; some outraged farmers burned copies of the plan in protest.

Amid heavy floods at the start of this year, the National Farmers Federation called on the centre-left minority Labour government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard to delay its water reform process. The government has rejected the calls.— © New York Times News Service

More In: Comment | Opinion