In the south-west of WA, Estelle Rowcliffe Carlson has just taken a 60 kilometre round trip to take a shower at her local leisure centre.

She has run out of water – a reality she, and many others, thought would never be the case, living in one of the wettest parts of the state.

“I thought we would always have enough,” she said.

It’s not just showering that’s become a challenge.

Estelle Rowcliffe Carlson takes her grandson to the local leisure centre for a shower.(ABC News: Jacqueline Lynch)

She also can no longer wash her clothes at home, and is borrowing water from neighbouring properties for dishes, the garden and looking after her animals.

“We rely solely on rainwater, and we’ve come to the end of our tank,” she said.

“At the moment, we’re taking our washing to a friend who’s on scheme water and doing it there.

Estelle Rowcliffe Carlson can’t afford to get water carted onto her rural property.(ABC News: Jacqueline Lynch)

“We’re collecting rainwater in some containers for our kitchen from a friend who has a lot of rainwater because he’s on his own.

“And we’re going across the neighbour’s place and getting dam water from his spring-fed dam to feed our sheep and our goat and chickens, and to do the toilet and the garden as well. We’re very fortunate that we have him.”

After several months without rain, Estelle Rowcliffe Carlson’s rainwater tank has run bone dry.(ABC News: Jacqueline Lynch)

Ms Rowcliffe Carlson is one of many in the region who are this year feeling the impacts of a chronic climate change problem that has suddenly become acute.

Two versions of the same story

While flooding and heavy rain has hit the eastern states this summer, in the west trees have turned brown, dams dry, and paddocks bare. 

The drought has been a chronic problem in WA that’s suddenly become acute.(ABC News: Tyne Logan)

Both situations likely bear the fingerprints of a changing climate.

And for people living in the region, it’s meant having to learn hard lessons that have been sneaking up on them for decades.

They’re vulnerabilities climate scientists say should act as a cautionary tale to the rest of the country, with the south-west of WA often referred to as the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for climate change impacts.

“So certainly for Australia, it’s south-west WA where that declining rainfall trend is going to be most acute,” Australian National University climate scientist Nerilie Abram said.

“But for other parts of the country, we also have other impacts of climate change, which again, will continue to worsen for as long as we’re continuing to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”

WA’s wettest region runs dry

Despite the decades-long drying trend, what has made this year so dire is that it has reached a level people didn’t see coming.

The south-west of WA is known for its wet weather, with the annual rainfall of Bridgetown, where Ms Rowcliffe Carlson lives, higher than that of Melbourne and Hobart.

Western Australia’s South West is popular with tourists for its old-growth forest.(ABC News: Tyne Logan)

The bulk of this rain falls during the winter and spring.

But in Bridgetown, rain stopped falling as early as September, and hasn’t returned until now. Of the handful of weather systems that did come through, few produced more than a drizzle.

The impacts of the extraordinary year are now visible everywhere.

Vegetation has been affected from north of Perth down to the state’s colder and wetter south-west region.(Murdoch University)

Patches of brown leaves can be seen amongst the dense green canopy that hugs the roads in the region, showing even the hardy Australian environment has limits to how much it can handle.

UWA forest ecologist Nate Anderson said the extent of damage in the forests was not yet clear, but it was something to be concerned about.

The south-west region is one of 25 original global hotspots for wildlife and plants, home to some of the highest concentrations of rare and endangered species in the country.

“I think anytime you have the level of drying that we’re seeing that that should ring at least some alarm bells about what’s going on from an ecological standpoint,” he said.

A bushfire broke out in thick forest on Western Australia’s south coast near the town of Walpole.(Supplied: Rod Burton)

At the same time, it’s also fuelled ongoing discussion about the risks of fire in a drying climate, and how to manage it.

Just last week, some of the fire risks were realised when an emergency-level bushfire tore through the forest of Walpole, a holiday destination on the state’s south coast known for its nature and hiking trails, prompting evacuations.

Drying draws stark lines

Meanwhile, on farms, it’s an “overwhelming” scene of brown paddocks and dwindling feed supply.

For farmers like Wally Bettink, who live on the far south coast of WA, where the complaints are usually that it’s too wet, it’s been a rude awakening.

Northcliffe dairy farmer Wally Bettink never imagined water shortages could become so dire. (ABC News: Tyne Logan)

“It normally rains for nine months of the year and drips off the trees for the other three, but this year we’ve been waiting eight months now for the drip,” he said.

“Looking at it almost makes me want to cry.”

The strong line separating his only irrigated paddock from his dryland pasture acts as a reminder of how green things would usually be this time of year.

“[Feed] is now getting seriously hard to find,” he said.

“We’re in a situation now where we’re having to pay big money for hay or silage, and it’s very difficult to find.”

Wally Bettink has irrigated part of his paddock. The other part is completely parched.(ABC News: Tyne Logan)

He said making matters worse was the fact they had far more livestock on farm than normal, due to the weak export market, which meant the small amount of feed they did have was being stretched thin.

Preparing for a new reality

Rain this week has provided some relief to those feeling the pain of this year’s weather, with hopes it will keep coming.

But across all sectors, conversations about what can be done to better equip the region for future years like it have ramped up.

Mr Bettink said he had realised his on-farm infrastructure wasn’t good enough for the kind of conditions he now knows are possible.

The WA government has released an aid package for struggling farmers.(ABC News: Tyne Logan)

“It’s in an area where we’ve always thought we’re safe, we’re now no longer safe. So it’s that uncertainty now that comes really to mind.”

He said he would be looking to sure up his own water supply.

But he also wants to see more thought go into capturing and storing water in his local government, and consideration given to the management of state feed stocks and the importance of export markets in a drying climate.

For Ms Rowcliffe Carlson, it’s simply a matter of saving for another water tank.

And for the government, it’s been a reminder about the need to continue to dedicate resources to long-term water security and build resilience into communities. 

“It will take an all of community effort to tackle the challenges, including local, state and federal governments, and it’s encouraging the community is already banding together to support those in need,” WA Water Minister Simone McGurk said.

It’s the kind of conversation that Dr Abram said needed to be happening all across the country, not just south-west WA.

ANU climate scientist Nerilie Abram says things are likely to get worse if we keep burning fossil fuels.(Supplied: Lannon Harley, ANU)

But importantly, she said people needed to plan for a ‘new normal’ that they hadn’t even experienced yet.

“Everything that we can do to reduce emissions will have a benefit in terms of limiting the amount of climate change,” she said.

“But we also need to be realistic, and realise that we actually haven’t reached peak emissions yet, let alone started the downward trajectory of rapidly decarbonising.

“So we are going to have to adapt to climate change.

“This isn’t as bad as it gets.”

Posted , updated