Sydney (AFP) April 20, 2007
An unprecedented drought that has withered Australia's major food production zone could be a taste of things to come as global warming ramps up, experts said Friday. Prime Minister John Howard said the six-year drought was so extreme Australia may have to import food while fears are mounting that supermarket prices will skyrocket if no rains fall within the next few weeks.
"The best thing that people could do is to pray for rain, and I mean that," Howard told public radio.
The prime minister has refused to blame the "unprecedentedly dangerous" crisis directly on climate change.
But scientists said the link between climate change and the drying up of rivers in the vast Murray-Darling Basin, Australia's prime agricultural region, was strengthening.
"You can't say that definitively, but I guess on the balance of evidence from southern Australia, rainfall patterns appear to have shifted," Adelaide University's professor of natural resources science Wayne Meyer said.
"There's no question about the evidence in terms of increased temperature. We have seen this persistent increase in temperature over the last 30 or 50 years. All the projections are that that will continue."
Meyer said Australia, with its warm climate, vast deserts and lack of mountains, would be one of the first countries in the world to be hit by the hardships caused by global warming.
"We are the ones that are going to be at the forefront because we're less buffered," he told AFP.
On Thursday, Howard warned that farmers along the Murray-Darling region would lose all their irrigation water if rains do not fall by June.
The Murray-Darling river system in southeastern Australia covers more than one million square kilometres (386,000 square miles), including most of New South Wales state and large parts of Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.
Containing 72 percent of Australia's irrigated crops and pastures and much of the nation's grape crop, it is regarded as the country's food basket.
Farmers say that unless drenching rains fall within weeks, the drought will devastate grape, citrus, stonefruit and apple production, cripple the wine industry and see food prices soar.
"Well, we'll never prove it's climate change until after the event but a lot of farmers have said this drought has the fingerprints of climate change all over it," the government's Murray-Darling Basin Commission chief Wendy Craik said.
As the country debates further water restrictions for major cities, building desalination plants to provide fresh water, and even transplanting farms to the tropical north, the opposition has attacked the government for its previous climate change scepticism.
"It's not the Howard government's fault in itself. I mean Mr. Howard can't make it rain, I understand that," Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"But for half a decade or more the government has been in a state of denial on climate change and water."
Environmental historian Daniel Connell said it was irrelevant whether the current water shortage was a result of the drought or global warming -- cultural change was now needed to ensure water was used more efficiently.
"This is an indication of what's going to happen in the future," the Australian National University academic told AFP.
"These are the sorts of conditions we need to be able to manage. Society has got to change its attitude to water and how it uses water."
earlier related report
Prime Minister John Howard announced last week that the "unprecedentedly dangerous" drought crisis meant water to farms in the fertile Murray-Darling basin would be shut off unless heavy rains fell by mid-May.
Howard said the water was needed for urban communities but acknowledged the move was likely to force Australia to import more food, impede overall economic growth and cripple agriculture in the Murray-Darling.
Covering more than one million square kilometres in the southeast of Australia, the Murray-Darling basin is the country's largest river system, almost three times bigger than Japan and four times larger than Britain.
It is Australia's rural powerhouse, producing more than 40 percent of the nation's agricultural produce, worth 10 billion dollars (8.3 billion US) a year, according to the government's environment department.
The Murray-Darling supports half the nation's sheep flock, a quarter of the cattle herd and three-quarters of all irrigated land.
Howard said the situation was "grim", predicting the drought would drag on the economy, which grew by a lower-than-expected 2.8 percent in 2006.
"We know already that the drought has taken three-quarters to one percent off our growth -- the longer it goes on the harder the impact," he said.
The government-commissioned report that Howard based his decision to restrict water flows on also predicted severe impacts unless the drought that has lasted up to a decade in parts of the Murray-Darling broke soon.
"Economic and social impacts would be substantial," it said, adding that rainfall in the past year had been only 60 percent of the previous minimum and had taken authorities by surprise.
"The rapid deterioration in water resource availability that has been experienced is unprecedented, and so the seriousness of the situation could not immediately have been predicted."
Treasurer Peter Costello said the fear was that the so-called "big dry" would lead to a spike in retail food prices, feeding onto inflation.
Costello cited the impact of Cyclone Larry in tropical Queensland in March 2006, which pushed up the price of bananas to send overall inflation skyrocketing beyond the central bank's 2.0-3.0 percent target band.
Costello said the impact of the drought could hit more product lines.
"We saw it with Cyclone Larry in north Queensland, the price of bananas went up four or five times.
"That's what you could be seeing in relation to stone-fruit, horticulture, all those things ... it's not good news."
National Farmers' Federation chief executive Ben Fargher said the dairy, sheep, grape, fruit and horticulture industries would all struggle without a water allocation.
"They are big economic contributors," he said. "A lot of those tree crops are quite labour intensive and contribute a lot of support jobs in regional communities."
Terry Sheales, the chief commodity analyst at the federal government's Australian bureau of agriculture and resource economics, said the drought would have a major impact on Australia's exports.
"It's also very important to Australia's overall export performance," he told ABC radio.
"For example, around about a bit over 20 percent of all of our merchandise exports come from the farm sector. As a general sort of comment, roughly two-thirds of everything produced on farms goes to export."
Source: Agence France-Presse
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