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Coping with Climate Extremes: Railways and Pastoralism During Australia's Federation Drought

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Transport networks can play an important role in responses to extreme climate events, especially when governments own the network and intervene directly. Railways occupied a central place in Australian rural development by the late nineteenth century, a topic that has been discussed widely by scholars of economic history. Much less is known about their contribution during the severe drought crises faced by rural communities. We investigate the role railways played during the Federation Drought of 1895-1903 in sustaining Australia's largest export industry, pastoralism. Government ownership of the railways enabled subsidies to be offered for the movement of livestock from drought areas and fodder to those areas. These policies assisted the rapid recovery of pastoral output and contributed to longer-term industry improvements. The intervention, however, came at significant financial cost to the railways, which was borne for the public good as part of an economic developmental purpose. The costs and benefits of drought relief policies continue to be debated today; our study demonstrates the major role transport networks can play in response to extreme climate events, both for immediate relief and in shaping subsequent behaviours.

Keywords: drought; pastoralism; railways; water scarcity

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2022

This article was made available online on May 13, 2020 as a Fast Track article with title: "Coping with Climate Extremes: Railways and Pastoralism During Australia’s Federation Drought".

More about this publication?
  • Environment and History is an interdisciplinary journal which aims to bring scholars in the humanities and biological sciences closer together, with the deliberate intention of constructing long and well-founded perspectives on present day environmental problems.

    Environment and History has a Journal Impact Factor (2021) of 0.925. 5 Year Impact Factor: 0.902.
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