Lizzy Lowe, Macquarie UniversityStunning photographs of vast, ghostly spider webs blanketing the flood-affected region of Gippsland in Victoria have gone viral online, prompting many to muse on the wonder of nature.
But what’s going on here? Why do spiders do this after floods and does it happen everywhere?
The answer is: these webs have nothing to do with spiders trying to catch food. Spiders often use silk to move around and in this case are using long strands of web to escape from waterlogged soil.
This may seem unusual, but these are just native animals doing their thing. It’s crucial you don’t get out the insecticide and spray them. These spiders do important work managing pests, so by killing them off you would be increasing the risk that pests such as cockroaches and mosquitoes will get out of control.
What you’re seeing online, or in person if you live locally, is an amazing natural phenomena but it’s not really very complicated.
We are constantly surrounded by spiders, but we don’t usually see them. They are hiding in the leaf litter and in the soil.
When these flood events happen, they need evacuate quickly up out of holes they live in underground. They come out en masse and use their silk to help them do that.
You’ll often see juvenile spiders let out a long strand of silk which is caught by the wind and lifted up. The web catches onto another object such as a tree and allows the spider to climb up.
That’s how baby spiders (spiderlings!) disperse when they emerge from their egg sacs — it’s called ballooning. They have to disperse as quickly as possible because they are highly cannibalistic so they need to move away from each other swiftly and find their own sites to hunt or build their webs.
That said, I doubt these webs are from baby spiders. It is more likely to be a huge number of adult spiders, of all different types, sizes and species. They’re all just trying to escape the flood waters. These are definitely spiders you don’t usually see above ground so they are out of their comfort zone, too.
This mass evacuation of spiders, and associated blankets of silk, is not a localised thing. It is seen in other parts of Australia and around the world after flooding.
It just goes to show how versatile spider silk can be. It’s not just used for catching food, it’s also used for locomotion and is even used by some spiders to lay a trail so they don’t get lost.
Don’t spray them!
The most important thing I need readers to know is that this is not anything to be worried about. The worst thing you could do is get out the insecticide and spray them.
These spiders are making a huge contribution to pest control and you would have major pest problems if you get rid of all the spiders. The spiders will disperse on their own very quickly. In general, spiders don’t like being in close proximity to each other (or humans!) and they want to get back to their homes underground.
If you live in Gippsland, you probably don’t even need to clear the webs away with a broom. There’s no danger in doing so if you wish, but I am almost certain these webs will disperse on their own within days.
Until then, enjoy this natural spectacle. I wish I could come down to see them with my own eyes!
Through a mix of interviews, focus groups and surveys, we sought insights about communities, how they recover after disaster and what factors have the greatest impact. We focused on community strengths and how to build on them.
The report identifies several opportunities for change, including the need for a long-term plan (five years minimum) for building community emergency management capability in the region — well before the next disaster strikes.
A brutal time
The 2019–20 fires damaged over half of the East Gippsland Shire, an area of over
1.16 million hectares. Over 400 dwellings and businesses were lost and four people lost their lives. Areas like Mallacoota were at acute risk. In some areas, communities were under threat for weeks and evacuated repeatedly, exhausting them before the recovery process began.
Then, the pandemic hit, disrupting the established pattern of recovery where people get together to make sense of what has happened and start to rebuild their communities. One person describe the timing as “brutal”. Another said:
When the fires happened, you had a couple of amazing people who stepped up, opened the hall, and everyone was coming in, and they started doing Friday night dinners and everyone was there. There were 200-odd people every Friday night and then COVID ended it.
Via online community consultations, interviews and focus groups, we asked community members to identify strengths that supported recovery and opportunities for change.
We also surveyed 614 people during October 2020 in fire-affected regions of Victoria and New South Wales, with 31% of respondents coming from Victoria and 69% from NSW.
When asked what strengths their community showed following the bushfires, they included generosity and kindness (69%), resilience (61%) and active volunteering (59%).
When asked to identify the main challenges since the bushfire, COVID was named as the main challenge (49%), followed by damage to the environment (39%), anxiety (31%) and overall fatigue (26%).
The combination of bushfires and the pandemic also created economic risks and disrupted supply chains. Small businesses make up 98% of the local economy, and many are heavily reliant on tourism.
Recovering through community strength and capability
Many of the strengths needed to drive recovery and resilience are already at the heart of these communities. These capabilities are more diverse and widespread than is often assumed.
There is considerable wealth and capacity in some areas, but also a high level of social and economic vulnerability, with some living hand-to-mouth.
There is significant local knowledge of risk management and recovery, which is often overlooked by experts coming in from outside. As one person told us:
You’ve got bureaucracy coming in from Melbourne who think that we’re just a bunch of country bumpkins who don’t quite know what we’re doing, yet we know our community better than they do.
Volunteer and informal economies are significant and underpin community resilience. Yet formal recovery strategies don’t target these areas very well; some people in the informal economy found they did not qualify for economic or business support at all.
The JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs helped maintain employment (albeit at levels of productivity that were lower than in the past). JobKeeper has now ended but support is still needed to boost productivity and help the local economy recover.
We also found:
government and some supporting agencies often lacked knowledge about the cultural, physical and social structures of different communities
some policies had perverse effects (for example, the HomeBuilder grant resulted in a lack of available builders)
programs and communication were often not tailored and did not accommodate the diverse needs of communities or specific cohorts within them
a lack of clarity as to what role the community have in response and recovery, and what risks they are responsible for
short-term allocation of resources and funding sometimes created an environment of uncertainty; for example, some participants raised concerns vulnerable community members may at risk when contracts for certain programs ran out, as the service offered would either cease or be led by a new contract-holder. As one person told us:
You can’t just bring someone in now and go, ‘Here you go, you take over all my people’, because the relationships and the trust that you build over this time, it’s not something you can hand over to someone else.
Knowing community strengths and supporting them
Recovery processes will never be perfect and we can also no longer assume communities will have time to recover from one disaster before the next arrives. As one person said:
People are suffering collective trauma, which creates anxiety and irritability. So, it is going to be difficult to move forward and I believe [name removed] will be a really changed place, this is something that will echo up and down along all fire-ravaged communities.
In natural hazard prone areas like Gippsland, it’s crucial to know what strengths already exist in the community so they can be harnessed when disaster hits. In other words, we need to find ways to support and grow community capabilities.
Listening to communities
It’s crucial communities, governments and the emergency services have a shared understanding of what the priorities are after a disaster and what can be realistically achieved.
A database of community capabilities would support more effective planning, policy-making and program development, as would a longer term collaborative project to identify and develop community capability.
Through listening to these communities we can learn from their experiences and support the development of community-led pathways to recovery.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone
you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.
For the first time in Victoria’s history, the state government has handed back water to traditional owners, giving them rights to a river system they have managed sustainably for thousands of years.
The two billion litres of water returned to the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) this month means traditional owners can now determine how and where water is used for cultural, environmental or economic purposes.
The decision recognises that water rights are crucial for Indigenous people to restore customs, protect their culture, become economically independent and heal Country.
The hand-back to Gunaikurnai people is the crucial first step in a bigger, statewide process of recognising Indigenous people’s deep connection to water. It also serves as an example to the rest of Australia, where Indigenous rights to water are grossly inadequate.
Water’s rightful home
Gunaikurnai people hold native title over much of Gippsland, from the mountains to the sea.
The water hand-back comes ten years since this native title was secured, and since Gunaikurnai people entered into the state’s first Traditional Owner Settlement Agreement with the government. Under this agreement, GLaWAC is a joint manager, with Parks Victoria, of ten parks and reserves in Gippsland, including the Mitchell River National Park.
Victorian water minister Lisa Neville said the hand-back was a key milestone in her government’s 2016 Aboriginal Water Policy. That plan aims to:
recognise Aboriginal values and objectives of water
include Aboriginal values and traditional ecological knowledge in water planning
support Aboriginal access to water for economic development
build capacity to increase Aboriginal participation in water management.
GLaWAC engages closely with government agencies that control how water is shared and used and these partnerships are highly valued. But it is only through owning water that traditional owners can really control how water is used to care for Country and for people.
For the moment, the water will be staying in the river. Its use will be decided after discussions between GLaWAC and Gunaikurnai community members.
Barriers to water ownership
In 2016, the Victorian government committed A$5 million to a plan to increase Aboriginal access to water rights, including funding for traditional owners to develop feasibility plans to support water-based businesses.
There are significant barriers to reallocating water to Victoria’s traditional owners. Water is expensive to buy, hold and use. Annual fees and charges can easily run to tens of thousands of dollars a year in some locations.
Using water to care for Country supports well-being, the environment and other water uses, including tourism and recreation. But, unlike using water for irrigation, there may not be any direct economic return from a water hand-back. This means water recovery for traditional owners must include ways to cover fees and charges.
Victoria’s water entitlement framework is also consumption-based – it is designed for water to be taken out of rivers, not left in. This can make it hard for traditional owners to leave water in the river for the benefit of the environment. So water entitlements and rules should be changed to reflect how traditional owners want to manage water.
Lastly, many traditional owners lack access to land where they can use the water. Or they may wish to use water in areas that, under natural conditions, would be watered when rivers flood, but which are now disconnected from the waterway. To help overcome this, traditional owners should be given access to Crown land, including joint management of parks. GLaWAC’s partnership agreements are a good example of how this might happen in future.
Change is possible
While significant barriers to water access remain, this hand-back shows how real water outcomes for traditional owners can be achieved when there is political will and ministerial support.
The water is part of six billion litres on the Mitchell River identified as unallocated, meaning no-one yet has rights over it. The remaining four billion litres will be made available on the open market, for use by irrigators or other industries. It can be extracted only during the colder months from July 1 to October 31.
The extraction and use of the water by Gunaikurnai people will be linked to specific locations, and the licence is up for renewal every 15 years. GLaWAC will work with state agency Southern Rural Water to ensure that the licence conditions match the water plans of traditional owners.
This step is crucial. There have been many instances in other states where traditional owners have obtained water, but been unable to use it due to barriers on how it can be used, and annual fees and charges.
Overcoming a history of injustice
Traditional owners across Australia never ceded their rights to water. Yet Aboriginal people own less than 1% of the nation’s water rights. Righting this wrong is the “unfinished business” of national water reform.
Even when political commitments are made, there has been little progress. For example, in 2018 the federal government committed A$40 million to acquire water rights for Aboriginal people in the Murray-Darling Basin, but no purchase of water rights has yet occurred.
This woeful and unjust situation is also reflected in Victoria. Before the Gunaikurnai hand-back, only a tiny handful of Aboriginal-owned organisations and one traditional owner, Taungurung, owned water rights in Victoria, and the volumes were small. In these cases, water recovery was not a formal hand-back from the state, and included a donation from a farmer.
Across Australia, Aboriginal people are watching the Victorian water reform process with great interest. The water returned to Gunaikurnai people builds momentum, and increases pressure on governments across Australia to take water justice seriously.