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.
Murray-Darling basin in south-eastern
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
point to the increasing frequency and severity of drought-causing El Niño
weather patterns, blamed on global warming. They also note
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
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
the government is determined to protect
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.
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.
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.
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.
from UN's IPCC report on the threat of global warming to
a result of reduced precipitation and increased evaporation, water security
problems are projected to intensify by 2030 in south and east
"Significant loss of biodiversity is projected to occur by 2020 in some
ecologically rich sites, including the Great Barrier Reef and
"Ongoing coastal development and population growth in areas such as
"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