A river ran through it (part one)

The Murray, Australia’s farming lifeblood, is choking to death in the worst drought for a thousand years. Is the “big dry” a national emergency, or a warning that the earth is running out of water? Claire Scobie reports.

Australian farmers always know someone else who is doing it tougher. They pride themselves on their resilience. They take pleasure in living in “a sunburnt country … of droughts and flooding rains”. Conservative and deeply sceptical, many dismiss global warming as hogwash. But with unprecedented water scarcity and the Murray, the country’s greatest river system, on the verge of collapse, warning bells are ringing around the globe.

Financially, the drought is pinching as far away as the United Kingdom, pushing up the cost of bread in British supermarkets as wheat prices reach a 10-year high. Symbolically, it cuts much deeper. Commentators are looking on, nervously, wondering if what is becoming the norm in Sydney, could be the future for Sydenham in London.

Professor Tim Flannery, an Australian environmental scientist and an international leader on climate change, has no doubts. “Australia is a harbinger of what is going to happen in other places in the world,” he says. “This can happen anywhere. China may be next, or parts of western USA. There will be emerging water crises all over the world.” In Kenya, the herdsmen of the Mandera region have been dubbed the “climate canaries” — the people most likely to be wiped out first by global warming. In Australia, the earth’s driest inhabited continent, it is the farmers who are on the frontline.

This extended dry spell began in 1998. Four years later came the once-in-100-years drought. Last year was declared a once-in-a-millennium event. Every city, except Darwin in the “top end” of Australia, is facing water restrictions. Rivers are reduced to a trickle that a child can jump across. Old Adaminaby, a town drowned by a reservoir 50 years ago, has resurfaced from its watery grave. Distressed koalas have been drinking from swimming pools. The list goes on.

The extent of the crisis was illustrated in January 2007, when the prime minister, John Howard, announced a 10-billion-Australian-dollar (US$8.5 billion) package to seize control of the Murray-Darling basin, the nation’s food bowl, accounting for 41% of Australia’s agriculture and A$22 billion worth of agricultural exports. The region covers an area the size of France and Spain combined and is home to almost three million people; its famed waterway, the River Murray, no longer holds sufficient water to flow out into the sea. Despite Howard’s massive rescue plan to overhaul the water system, six months later the irrigation taps to the region’s farmers were turned off.

Malcolm Holm knows just how bad things can get. A dairy farmer with a bullish smile, Holm, 39, is a respected pillar in his local community of Finley, on the flat plains of southwest New South Wales (NSW). He depends, as do more than 50,000 other farmers, on the River Murray. I first meet Malcolm and his wife, Jenny Wheeler, 47, in Sydney in mid-July. As we sit down for coffee, it’s hard not to notice his strapped left arm, with angry red weals seared along the forearm, resting inert on the table.

Last October, with no water flowing into the major dams, the NSW government faced an unparalleled situation. Following last year’s lowest inflows into the Murray on record, they miscalculated how much water was available across the board. “Carryover water” worth millions of dollars, which had been saved and paid for by farmers for irrigation, was slashed by 20% without consultation. Three weeks later, farmers were hit with another 32% cut. Today, they are on zero allocation.

Aside from running his own 1,000 acres (404 hectares) and 500 dairy cows, Holm works tirelessly on a raft of community committees. The day after the second water cut — which had “blown out” his drought strategy and would cost him A$1.5 million from the loss of water, fodder and milk production — he was back at work in the dairy. The grain auger — a cylindrical barrel that moves the grain from one massive silo to the other — was jammed. After fiddling with the machine he flicked a switch. “I wasn’t concentrating.” He pauses, frowning. “I was thinking about water.” It was the wrong switch. In the blink of an eye, Malcolm Holm had sliced off his hand.

In March 2006, Flannery’s The Weather Makers was published in the UK, spelling out in incisive detail what awaits us unless we decarbonise our world by 2050. Described by naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough as “in the league of the all-time great explorers” — and the 2007 Australian of the Year — Flannery combines a Gaian approach with hard science. The result: Australia’s answer to Silent Spring. When I speak to Flannery, he’s recovering from the flu after a particularly cold, damp July. Floods and violent storms have caused havoc along Australia’s eastern seaboard, beaching one 40,000-tonne tanker like an aluminum dinghy. I put it to Flannery that the difficulty with global warming is that many areas are facing freak flooding. “General modelling suggests that every degree Celsius of warming leads to a 1% increase in rainfall globally,” he explains. “But these downpours are not uniform, causing intense bursts and downpours of rain in some places and not in others. We are learning about this 1% effect as we go.”

In his book, Flannery describes the dramatic decline in winter precipitation in southwestern Australia since the 1960s. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has forecast that on the east coast, rainfall could drop by 40% by 2070, along with a seven-degree rise in temperature and an increased chance of bush fires. Last November, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report added to the predicted misery, stating that “the annual flow in the Murray-Darling basin is likely to fall by 10 to 25% by 2050”, resulting in a decline in production from agriculture and forestry.

Five years ago, during the last major drought, I travelled through western Queensland, across a fragile, red-baked landscape that was obviously not suited to the hooves of millions of cattle and sheep — there are no Australian native animals with cleft hooves — and met farmers whose dreams were crumbling to dust. Back then, there was virtually no mention of global warming. The problem was attributed to the dry, cyclical conditions caused by El Niño, a powerful climatic phenomenon linked to the Pacific Ocean, which drives rain-bearing clouds away from the continent.

Fast-forward to July 2007 and few scientists doubt the “big dry” is caused, in part, by climate change. Some refer to it as a climate shift; others, like Flannery, who matches Al Gore in his Armageddon-like predictions, are unequivocal that it is a foretaste of what’s to come. As Australia is the first developed nation to experience such a prolonged dry spell, it’s no wonder that the rest of the world is looking on to see how the country copes — and what lessons can be learned.

This time I chose not to trek to the burnished outback. I wanted to see the effect of the drought a day’s drive from Sydney or Melbourne. This wouldn’t be a story of skeletal cows and cracked earth, but rather the more complex tale of water mismanagement and a pounding assault by humans on a delicate ecosystem.

What is remarkable is the seismic swing among ordinary Australians over the past 12 months. The synergy of Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (although John Howard, until recently a climate sceptic, snubbed Gore on his Australian tour), the release of the Stern Review by British economist Nicholas Stern and a rise in food prices have combined as a loud wake-up call. Now, as the stress of trying to squeeze every drop out of an over-stretched waterway threatens to tear communities apart, fierce public debate has forced the environment to the forefront of this year’s general election. Two massive desalination plants will be built in the Australian states of Victoria and NSW, following the construction, in Western Australia, of Perth’s successful desalinisation plant; the government also announced it would ban incandescent light bulbs, which contribute to greenhouse gases.

For Flannery, these are baby steps. “We could be the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy. We’ve got solar potential; we’ve got a geo-thermal province in central Australia and the best potential for wind power off the east coast.” For Anne Jensen, an academic who’s been studying the ecology of the lower Murray in South Australia for 25 years, it’s a question of priority. “Everyone is fighting to keep what they’ve got in a situation where people are going to need to give something up,” she says. “While everyone is on rations, we have to make sure that the river is healthy enough to support us all.”

It was Mark Twain who compared the River Murray to America’s Mississippi. During the 19th century, paddle steamers were a familiar sight along its lazy green-grey currents, ferrying goods from town to town. Covering an area of more than one million square kilometres, the basin carries water from the tropical north in Queensland to the Darling River, and from the Murray’s source in the Snowy Mountains to the outskirts of Adelaide, 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) downstream.

Nearly 60 years ago, the Snowy Hydro scheme was opened, harnessing the headwaters of three rivers to generate hydroelectricity and capture melting winter snows in two large lakes, Eucumbene and Jindabyne. With the creation of 16 dams and countless weirs, the scheme promised to “drought proof” the nation by creating a reliable supply of water to the Murray. In the long term, the environment lost out, but the dry, fertile country, like Finley, to the west, was transformed into dairy pastures, orchards and lush rice fields.

When it comes to the River Murray, nothing is straightforward. Despite the commission in charge of the river being set up in 1917, it is only this year that the federal government is wresting control from the four states which, until now, have had their own rules and conflicting regulations. While Queensland, NSW and South Australia were quick to cede power to the central government, Victoria has raised the possibility of bringing a case to the High Court to protect its water rights.

The accumulation of years of over-allocation and drought has resulted in a pitifully low stream level. In June 2006, the catchment received an inflow of 700 gigalitres. A year later, it had plummeted to 300 gigalitres. (One gigalitre is 1,000 million litres.) What is keeping the region functioning is the depleted water storage in dams like Hume, just outside Albury, a bustling centre on the border between NSW and Victoria. And it is from Albury that I set off, the day after meeting Malcolm Holm.

NEXT: The farmers’ uncertain futures

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

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