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Rains Boost Hopes of Drought-Hit Australian Farmers

Wet farmland near Forbes, NSW, Australia

Wet farmland near Forbes, NSW, Australia

Parched areas of New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, have received their best rains in more than a decade, fueling hope the continent's worst drought in memory may finally be easing. Vast tracts of land have been turned into inland lakes and dry rivers have begun to flow for the first time in years.

Three months ago, this part of New South Wales was dry and barren. The recent downpours have resuscitated land that was dying. Out here near Forbes, on either side of the road heading to farm owned by Gary Johnston, there are green fields as far as you can see - a welcome boost to a beleaguered community.

"There are kids here that are eight-ten years old that have never seen rain of any consequence," he said. "They have seen showers of rain but they have never seen any puddle or large water ponding. That tells you how dry it is. So farmers are pretty resilient generally and they have toughed it out for a long time but I think everyone was at breaking point and still are. There is a lot of people in a lot of trouble. We need to have significant follow-up rain to keep the whole thing moving along is a positive way."

The rains have brought renewed vigor to this corner of the outback and the lawn mowers have been out in force. Even the lake in the middle of Forbes is overflowing for the first time in years. The ducks and kayakers have not had it so good in a long time and the sight of so much water is doing wonders for morale.

At the Forbes High School, teachers say the wet conditions have improved the behavior and performance of students -- almost as if the rain has revitalized their minds.

Nicole Buttress and her 17-year-old classmate, Clayton Clarke, are enjoying the new green landscape.

"Seeing the children down at the lake with the water flowing over the road, it was kind of like a dream. It was hard to believe with all the dryness and now it is just the water's flowing over the road. The lakes are full, the dams are full and people are happy," said Nicole Buttress.

"I was traveling home from Sydney the other day also and the distance that I traveled and the amount of green there is from Sydney to Forbes is quite lovely to see. Yeah, it has put everyone's spirits on a bit of a high," says Clayton Clarke.

It's just the lift this hard-pressed farming region has been crying out for. Rates of depression have soared as the drought intensified. Church groups say despite the gloom, the community has responded well to the challenges.

"Things like the drought really tests the mettle of individuals and communities. But it also highlights, I think, the strengths and nobility of the human spirit, where people really do care about one another at the end of the day," says Kel Hodge, a chaplain for Australia's Uniting Church.

Much more rain is needed if Australia's worst drought in 100 years is finally to be banished. Trevor Smith, a livestock farmer near Forbes, has studied the area's climate records that date back to 1874.

He believes history shows that the recent downpours are a very good sign.

"Going on that pattern, what has happened so far it looks as though it might be the beginning of the end but we need a flood. We are not out of this drought until we have a flood," he said.

Does he think it's likely to happen this year?

"I think so, yeah. I said that also probably four years ago too, I don't know. When you are a farmer you live in, you now, hope. You expect the next one to be a big one otherwise you wouldn't do it," he said.

Other farmers, like Gary Johnston, are more cautious about the future.

"I am planning for on-going drought because you don't have continual disappointment if you expect it to stay dry, which has been the case for ten years. If you get rain, I'll deal with that at the time and we'd be happy to receive it but I'm not preoccupied with it. I think it is part of our job as farmers is to deal with what we actually have and we are doing the best we can," he said.

After the driest decade in memory, the recent drenching has given farmers near Forbes a glorious taste of what life could be like when the 'Big Dry' is finally over.

However, other drought-hit regions in southeastern Australia missed out on the recent rainstorms. The federal government has extended emergency financial aid to struggling farmers in parts of New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.