By Kathy Marks
21 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
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 Niño
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 regions."
* "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
* "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."
© 2007 Independent News
and Media Limited
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