A vast swathe of the southern portion of the country has been devastated. Furious farmers are responding by setting in flames copies of plans for reducing water usage.
Australian drought begins to bite
MOREE, AUSTRALIA // The first thing that greets visitors to the small town of Moree is a sign on the tin shed that serves as the airport's passenger lounge. "If water goes, nurses go too," it declares,
Other signs around town carry similar warnings: "House prices will fall … businesses will close … doctors go too."
The water in question is drawn from the Gwydir River, part of Australia's sprawling Murray-Darling river system, and is used by local farmers to irrigate crops. The federal government wants to reduce their water allocation to restore the basin - ravaged by a long drought and decades of excessive farm irrigation - to ecological health.
An independent authority has recommended cuts of 27 to 37 per cent across the basin, which occupies a vast swathe of south-eastern Australia and supplies nearly 40 per cent of the nation's fresh food. That is anathema to farmers, who have been venting their fury at a series of mass meetings, organised to explain the proposals to affected communities.
In Griffith and Deniliquin, in rural New South Wales, protesters burnt copies of a 223-page preliminary plan published by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. In Moree, near the Queensland border, they threw the document beneath the wheels of a tractor, then ran over it.
One resident accused the authority's chairman, Mike Taylor, of "taking away our livelihoods". Another told him: "You come into our community, you take our water, you kick us where it hurts, and you say everything will be hunky-dory."
The anger of rural towns across the basin, the world's third largest water catchment, illustrates the dilemma of many governments facing competing demands for dwindling natural resources. In Australia, the driest inhabited continent in the world, the problem is particularly acute, and long-term forecasts of hotter weather mean the situation likely will get worse.
While farmers say Australia has always experienced cycles of drought and rainfall, most scientists here agree that droughts are becoming more frequent and intense. Across Australia, temperatures have risen by about one degree Centigrade since 1910, and the government's main scientific body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, says there is growing evidence that lower rainfall in the south-east is linked to global climate change.
Within the Murray-Darling are thousands of wetlands, 16 of them listed under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that commits governments to protect important habitats for migratory birds. However, the big floods that used to soak the wetlands are far less frequent nowadays, and native species of fish, birds, frogs, insects and plants have declined. Massive river red gums, some of them 500 years old, are dying. Especially degraded is the mouth of the River Murray, south of Adelaide, right at the bottom of the system.
While the proposed cutbacks are voluntary - the government has set aside millions of dollars to "buy back" irrigators' water licences - agricultural communities fear their social and economic impact. If farmers sell and leave, they reason, populations will fall, squeezing businesses and threatening the viability of already struggling small towns.
A report by an independent banking consultant has named Moree as one of eight towns that might not survive. Like much of south-eastern Australia, it suffered severely during the 10-year drought, and it lost 1,600 people, or nearly one-tenth of its population. Following above average rainfall this year, those reliant on the Gwydir River - which flows into the Darling - were looking forward to a bumper harvest.
"We've come through the drought years, and just as we're picking up the pieces, they whack this on us," says one farmer, Gavin Bartel. He warns that the slashing of water allocations will be keenly felt, "all the way down to the little guy selling petrol or a cup of coffee".
Farmers point to long-term mismanagement of the basin, which straddles four states and one territory. The row has also highlighted divisions between urban Australia, which is home to four-fifths of the population, and inland rural areas.
"No one's saying that Adelaide has got to cap its population, or that every new house has to have a rainwater tank," says Kerrie Matchett, who runs a picture framing business in Moree. "We feel like we're the only ones being asked to make a sacrifice."
What few in the Gwydir valley are willing to talk about is their heavy reliance on cotton, a particularly thirsty crop. The wisdom of growing such crops - water-intensive rice is also cultivated in the Murray- Darling - in an extremely arid region is not up for discussion. "I'm incensed that people think we're water thieves," fumes the mayor of Moree Plains Shire Council, Katrina Humphries. "Our cotton growers are some of the most innovative recyclers of water."
A row of pick-up trucks was parked defiantly outside last week's meeting. Inside, Mr Taylor did his best to appease the crowd, but his critics - many of them fifth-generation farmers - responded with jeers and shouts of "rubbish".
Ashley McDonald told him: "I'm a cotton farmer's wife-to-be, and we have a young son. What are we supposed to do when he loses his job?" A local businesswoman, Georgie King, declared: "No one is going to buy a house or a business here, because they don't know whether Moree will exist or whether it will become a ghost town."
As a result of the basin-wide uproar, two studies of the social and economic consequences of the cuts have been commissioned. The federal Labor government, which has distanced itself from the preliminary plan, said last week that it might amend legislation that requires sufficient water to be set aside for the environment.
That would be disastrous for the river system, said Richard Kingsford, a professor of environmental science at the University of New South Wales. He says median flows at the bottom of the river system have dropped by nearly 80 per cent, and many of the basin's wetlands are "in desperate straits".
Ann Henderson Sellers, an Australian scientist who is the former director of the UN's World Climate Research Programme, believes the battle between environmentalists and rural communities is misguided.
"Even if the communities were to win, I don't think most of them can win long-term, because long-term there's going to be not more but less water," she said.
"We're negotiating with a planet that's going in the opposite direction."