So, we now have a one in 1000 years drought. Murray-Darling Basin Commission manager David Dreverman used the expression at the water summit yesterday, and it has been eagerly seized upon by the Premiers. But just what exactly does it mean?

“One in 100 years” is a typical meaningless piece of public sector hyperbole. It’s like the use of the phrase “world-class” in a ministerial media release.

“One in 1000 years” is even worse. It’s a spin-doctor’s descriptor designed to highlight whatever follows. It’s neither quantifiable nor scientific.

The Bureau of Meteorology tells Crikey its records reach back to the 1850s. It freely admits that temperature records can be a little wobbly – non standardised recording measures mean that the “average” temperatures we used nowadays are only based on measurements from the 1960s onwards – but is pretty proud of its rainfall measures.

Many come from family farms. The Bureau points to one outside Ballarat where successive generations of the same family have been keeping records for 150 years.

It’s a great story – but still leaves us with 850 years unaccounted for.

What we do know is that drought – severe drought – is a fact of life in Australia. We know that our native flora and fauna have evolved to deal with a boom/bust cycle of drought and flood. We know that the deserts explode with life when the rains come.

We should also know that “one in 1000 years” drought talk is just hyperbole from politicians and interest groups who want to hog the limelight.

Paul Keating famously warned to “never get between a premier and a bucket of money”. If there are microphones present and cameras rolling it applies to buckets of water, too.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey