Lessons of a five-year drought

Queensland drought relief groups share tips learnt over five years

Standing tall: Longreach drought relief coordinator, David Phelps, has seen plenty of drought in the last five years and he knows there's still plenty of miles to travel. Picture: Sally Cripps.

Standing tall: Longreach drought relief coordinator, David Phelps, has seen plenty of drought in the last five years and he knows there's still plenty of miles to travel. Picture: Sally Cripps.


As the amount of drought aid distributed in western and south western Queensland approaches the $2 million mark, the managing groups have messages of advice for newcomers.


As the amount of drought aid distributed by local networks in western and south western Queensland over the last four years approaches the $2 million mark, the managing groups have two messages – remember how long rural Queenslanders have been suffering, and take note of the learnings they’ve discovered along their journey of aid.

Rotary district 9630, covering clubs at Roma, Mitchell, Charleville, and St George, initiated a “whole-of-community” drought relief scheme in 2014 that has distributed $950,000, while the Western Queensland Drought Appeal got underway as the crisis deepened in 2015, and has just hit the $1m mark in help handed out to 1300-plus recipients.

Both groups emphasise that the best charity and support is when people work with locals to ask what communities need, and how to provide it.

Previous Rotary aid projects, such as providing emergency relief to Mitchell when it was impacted by flood in 2011, taught drought aid coordinators in the south west that a whole of community approach was most beneficial, given that small businesses, often carrying debt, are also impacted by the financial crunch that drought brings.

“We are not into ‘stuff’ being brought in from outside – it’s detrimental to the little businesses trying to survive in the towns,” district drought committee chairman, Phillip Charles said.

They have partnered with an impartial third party, the southern Rural Financial Counselling Service, to distribute vouchers that can only be drawn down on in local towns.

Mr Charles said there had been stigma issues with these in the early days but they were now accepted and recognised by all as helping the community survive.

“We were told of an occasion when a farmer produced a voucher and the shop assistant said, ‘that means I’ll get paid this week’,” Mr Charles said.

The vouchers enable recipients to choose what to spend it on, and Mr Charles said this was overwhelmingly groceries.

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Varying the help offered with the money available, to ensure it touched all needs, the Rotary-managed help also consists of family days of entertainment and pampering, and a reading assistance program for drought-affected preschoolers that sends a new book to about 130 children across the south west each month.

“Anecdotally, we hear the kids are hanging out for the books to come,” Mr Charles said. “We just felt it could be one thing that would drop off in a drought.”

Around $20,000 has been spent on this separate initiative.

We’re just doing the best with what we’ve got to relieve the pain - Phillip Charles, Rotary District 9630

It’s a similar story from out among the Barcoo and Thomson River country, where drought has been haunting residents for longer than they’ve endured in living memory.

Begun in 2015, the Western Queensland Drought Appeal, based at Longreach, has partnered with Westpac to distribute around 4000 prepaid cards, consisting of $1m in total, to over 1000 graziers and their families.

The group’s charter included establishing a tax-deductible charity so that cash could be securely donated to farm families to spend locally.

Appeal chairman, David Phelps, also a Longreach Rotarian, said it was great to see the generosity continuing to flow from concerned urban communities.

He said it was still badly needed in the areas they were caring for in Queensland’s west and he offered to help distribute the new dollars flowing in thanks to the renewed focus on drought, saying they had the runs on the board to maximise the money given.

He said the committee could:

  • Quickly distribute donations securely on prepaid Westpac Visa cards
  • Donate discreetly and confidentially, using everyday cards that couldn’t be identified as drought cards, removing the stigma that could be associated with accepting charity
  • Assure donors that donated dollars go to those who need it because everyone on the WQDC management committee is an unpaid volunteer, and all admin costs have been covered by grants and sponsorship

If cards aren’t redeemed, the money comes back into the WQDA account when they expire, and more cards are loaded up with unspent funds.

“Those smaller amounts that people don’t spend before the expiry can help out another 20-30 families each time,” Mr Phelps said.

“If someone has not used their card before it expires, we ask them to call us and we arrange a replacement.”

The group would like to conduct a fresh card distribution in November, so that people can spend locally for Christmas, but will be relying on a fresh round of donations to make this a reality, considering the last of their funds were distributed in March.

“We urgently need an injection of funds to keep doing our work,” Mr Phelps said.

As well as the immediate help provided by the public and governments, such as the new lump sum Farm Household Allowance payments, Mr Phelps said the group was keen to see an investment in the future ‘drought-proofing’ of country communities, especially regions that were taking charge of their own future.

The Longreach Rotary Club helped move charitable responses away from a disaster relief model towards building community resilience.

A portable screen set up to play movies in a backyard on a remote Longreach property. Photo supplied.

A portable screen set up to play movies in a backyard on a remote Longreach property. Photo supplied.

Like their southern counterparts, they began to focus on outdoor movie and barbecue evenings, and reduced volunteer burnout in small communities by catering at annual events.

Mr Phelps said this was all about preparing for life after drought.

“We believe the benefits of local action and of looking for both immediate and longer-term support, are readily apparent,” he said.

“These actions now need to be embedded in policy at state and national levels.”


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