Australia is in the grip of the most severe drought on record. The nation are warned that unless heavy rains come soon to break the unprecedented dry-spell, it might prove necessary to cut water supplies for food production. The Murray-Darling basin in south-eastern Australia produces 40% of the continent's agriculture and is supplied by two rivers, which are now so low that soon there will only be enough water available for drinking, not for irrigation. It is thought that the reason for the drought is climate-change, and the government are blamed for not acting sooner. John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, has said that unless there is a significant rainfall during the next six to eight weeks, irrigation will be prevented in the main farming area, with the consequence that crops such as rice, cotton and grapes (for wine) will fail, while citrus, olive and almond trees will die, as will livestock.
In 2002 - 2003, drought halved wheat production in Australia. Mr Howard said: "It's a grim situation, and there is no point pretending to Australia otherwise. We must all hope and pray there is rain." The causes of the present drought are believed to be complex, but few scientists doubt that climate change is part of the problem, which is making Australia hotter and drier. With pastures reduced to dust, some farmers have resorted to selling-off their livestock at rock-bottom prices, or they try to keep them going on feed that is now massively expensive. The suicide rate among rural communities has soared, as indeed it did in the UK, when our farming industry was hit by BSE and then foot-and-mouth disease.
Australians enjoy one of the best standards of living, and have the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Average temperatures in Australia have increased by 0.7 degrees C over the past 100 years, and most of that during the last 50 years. 80% of the population live on the eastern seaboard or the coastal perimeters of the continent. 50% of all Australia's CO2 emissions arise from burning coal, which as noted in an earlier posting, is very abundant there. The Great Barrier Reef is suffering from rising sea-temperatures, and 60% of it was bleached in 2002. At 2,575 and 2,739 kilometers in length, respectively, the river Murray and its tributary, the Darling, provide 84% of all water used for irrigating farmland; however, there will soon be just enough for essential supplies. Australia is also beset by forest-fires which consume large areas of land. The south-eastern region is especially prone to them and the hot, arid climate there will be worsened by the current drought.
The death toll of wildlife is significant when the fires strike, particularly in the eucalyptus forests, where the flammable vapours from them fuel intense firestorms, and wombats, koalas and many of Australia's other unique indigenous creatures are greatly at risk from this kind of fire. Environmentalists refer to the rising number of El Nino events which bring drought, and blame them on global warming. Until only recently, Mr Howard and his minsters remained skeptical about the issue of global warming and climate change, and he refused to meet Al Gore during a recent visit he made there to promote his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. He was also less than sanguine about "The Stern Report", published in the UK by the economist Sir Nicholas Stern, which contains the warning that large arable areas of Australia would be rendered barren if global temperatures increased by an average of four degrees C.
George Bush has said that "the jury is out" on the link between human-produced CO2 emissions and global warming, despite the consensus of world scientists that there is no doubt they are connected. Mr Howard has responded to the view of his citizens' opinion, and recently announced the intention to ban inefficient light bulbs, with the view to cut Australia's CO2 emissions. It is a serious business and I wonder whether there will be a massive re-immigration of Australians who are originally of British and European stock back to these countries. Almost certainly, populations will follow climate change, moving to warmer, cooler or wetter lands in order to survive.
Kathy Marks, "The Epic Drought", writing in The Independent, April 20th, p.2-3.