Australia's epic drought: The situation is grim
By Kathy Marks in Sydney
Published: 20 April 2007

Australia has warned that it will have to switch off the water supply  
to the continent's food bowl unless heavy rains break an epic drought  
- heralding what could be the first climate change-driven disaster to  
strike a developed nation.

The Murray-Darling basin in south-eastern Australia yields 40 per  
cent of the country's agricultural produce. But the two rivers that  
feed the region are so pitifully low that there will soon be only  
enough water for drinking supplies. Australia is in the grip of its  
worst drought on record, the victim of changing weather patterns  
attributed to global warming and a government that is only just  
starting to wake up to the severity of the position.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, a hardened climate-change sceptic,  
delivered dire tidings to the nation's farmers yesterday. Unless  
there is significant rainfall in the next six to eight weeks,  
irrigation will be banned in the principal agricultural area. Crops  
such as rice, cotton and wine grapes will fail, citrus, olive and  
almond trees will die, along with livestock.

A ban on irrigation, which would remain in place until May next year,  
spells possible ruin for thousands of farmers, already debt-laden and  
in despair after six straight years of drought.

Lovers of the Australian landscape often cite the poet Dorothea  
Mackellar who in 1904 penned the classic lines: "I love a sunburnt  
country, a land of sweeping plains." But the land that was  
Mackellar's muse is now cracked and parched, and its mighty rivers  
have shrivelled to sluggish brown streams. With paddocks reduced to  
dust bowls, graziers have been forced to sell off sheep and cows at  
rock-bottom prices or buy in feed at great expense. Some have already  
given up, abandoning pastoral properties that have been in their  
families for generations. The rural suicide rate has soared.

Mr Howard acknowledged that the measures are drastic. He said the  
prolonged dry spell was "unprecedentedly dangerous" for farmers, and  
for the economy as a whole. Releasing a new report on the state of  
the Murray and Darling, Mr Howard said: "It is a grim situation, and  
there is no point in pretending to Australia otherwise. We must all  
hope and pray there is rain."

But prayer may not suffice, and many people are asking why crippling  
water shortages in the world's driest inhabited continent are only  
now being addressed with any sense of urgency.

The causes of the current drought, which began in 2002 but has been  
felt most acutely over the past six months, are complex. But few  
scientists dispute the part played by climate change, which is making  
Australia hotter and drier.

Environmentalists point to the increasing frequency and severity of  
drought-causing El Niņo weather patterns, blamed on global warming.  
They also note Australia's role in poisoning the Earth's atmosphere.  
Australians are among the world's biggest per-capita energy  
consumers, and among the top producers of carbon dioxide emissions.  
Despite that, the country is one of only two industrialised nations -  
the United States being the other - that have refused to ratify the  
1997 Kyoto protocol. The governments argue that to do so would harm  
their economies.

Until a few months ago, Mr Howard and his ministers pooh-poohed the  
climate-change doomsayers. The Prime Minister refused to meet Al Gore  
when he visited Australia to promote his documentary, An Inconvenient  
Truth. He was lukewarm about the landmark report by the British  
economist Sir Nicholas Stern, which warned that large swaths of  
Australia's farming land would become unproductive if global  
temperatures rose by an average of four degrees.

Faced with criticism from even conservative sections of the media, Mr  
Howard realised that he had misread the public mood - grave faux pas  
in an election year. Last month's report by the UN Intergovernmental  
Panel on Climate Change predicted more frequent and intense  
bushfires, tropical cyclones, and catastrophic damage to the Great  
Barrier Reef. The report also said there would be up to 20 per cent  
more droughts by 2030. And it said the annual flow in the Murray- 
Darling basin was likely to fall by 10-25 per cent by 2050. The  
basin, the size of France and Spain combined, provides 85 per cent of  
the water used nationally for irrigation.

While the government is determined to protect Australia's coal  
industry, the drought is expected to shave 1 per cent off annual  
growth this year. The farming sector of a country that once "rode the  
sheep's back" to prosperity is in desperate straits. With dams and  
reservoirs drying up, many cities and towns have been forced to  
introduce severe water restrictions.

Mr Howard has softened his rhetoric of late, and says that he now  
broadly accepts the science behind climate change. He has tried to  
regain the political initiative, announcing measures including a plan  
to take over regulatory control of the Murray-Darling river system  
from state governments.

He has declared nuclear power the way forward, and is even  
considering the merits of joining an international scheme to "trade"  
carbon dioxide emissions - an idea he opposed in the past.

Mr Howard's conservative coalition will face an opposition Labour  
Party revitalised by a popular new leader, Kevin Rudd, and offering a  
climate change policy that appears to be more credible than his. Ben  
Fargher, the head of the National Farmers' Federation, said that if  
fruit and olive trees died, that could mean "five to six years of  
lost production". Food producers also warned of major food price rises.

Mr Howard acknowledged that an irrigation ban would have a  
"potentially devastating" impact. But "this is very much in the lap  
of the gods", he said.

How UN warned Australia and New Zealand

Excerpts from UN's IPCC report on the threat of global warming to  
Australia and New Zealand:

"As a result of reduced precipitation and increased evaporation,  
water security problems are projected to intensify by 2030 in south  
and east Australia and, in New Zealand, in Northland and eastern  

* "Significant loss of biodiversity is projected to occur by 2020 in  
some ecologically rich sites, including the Great Barrier Reef and  
Queensland's tropics. Other sites at risk include the Kakadu  
wetlands ... and the alpine areas of both countries."

* "Ongoing coastal development and population growth in areas such as  
Cairns and south-east Queensland (Australia) and Northland to Bay of  
Plenty (New Zealand) are projected to exacerbate risks from sea-level  
rise and increases in the severity and frequency of storms and  
coastal flooding by 2050."

* "Production from agriculture and forestry by 2030 is projected to  
decline over much of southern and eastern Australia, and over parts  
of eastern New Zealand, due to increases in droughts and fires."

* "The region has substantial adaptive capacity due to well-developed  
economies and scientific and technical capabilities, but there are  
considerable constraints to implementation ... Natural systems have  
limited adaptive capacity."

s. e. anderson (author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners" -  
Writers + Readers) +