Page 2 of 2   <      

Despite record drought, Australian farmers refuse to buy into climate change

Australians are out front in experiencing the life-altering consequences of climate change. Rising temperatures and declining rainfall are, with increasing frequency, transforming the Outback into a crematorium for kangaroos, livestock and farm towns.

"I think we are coming to the end of a 10-year cycle of drought," said Grant, 48, as he drove a visitor out among his apricot trees.

He has had to watch many of those trees die, the result of government-imposed limits on the water he can pump out of the Murray. Last year, he was permitted to take just 18 percent of what had been the farm's guaranteed allocation of water; this year, with a slight increase in rainfall, he is getting 46 percent.

The water squeeze has slashed the Griegers' income by about 30 percent. They have had to spend $12,000 to extend a pipe from an irrigation pump to the retreating river. Denise, 45, has taken a job showing tourists how to raise yabby, a drought-resistant edible crayfish native to the Murray.

The Griegers' dried apricots won first prize at a recent contest sponsored by the South Australian Dried Tree Fruit Association. Their land is paid for, and their debts are low. So are their operating costs, thanks to their four teenage children who work on the farm, picking fruit and tending livestock.

But four years of water restrictions have made them dependent on "exceptional circumstance drought relief." Government money, they say, makes up for most of the income they've lost to drought. It allows them to afford gasoline to drive their kids to track meets, music lessons and malls.

"How long we can continue depends, I guess, on the government," Denise said. "How long can the government continue to keep delivering drought relief?"

Not long. The minister of agriculture, Tony Burke, has said that as climate change makes drought an unexceptional circumstance, government must wean farmers off assistance and push them into self-sustaining livelihoods.

In the Griegers' kitchen over cookies and tea, Grant said it is unimaginable that he could take his family away from the Murray River basin. Denise thinks scientists and the politicians have it wrong. "I don't believe in climate change, as such," said Denise, as her husband nodded in agreement. "I think maybe the media, maybe even the scientists, make things sound worse than they really are. It is to put fear into people."

Others are beginning to believe. For 14 years, Peter Jarratt and Margaret Claassen have managed a marina on the Murray that caters to houseboats. Four years ago, the level of water in the river began to fall. It is now down by about six feet, and the marina has turned into a mud puddle, picked at by black swans and punctuated by beached vessels that may never sail anywhere.

"The Murray is our artery," Jarratt said one recent morning, as he looked out upon marina mud. "If you can't get it fixed, you die. And that is what is happening here."

A hotter, drier future

Southern Australia -- home to the nation's biggest cities, its farm belt and the Murray -- has never in its recorded history been so hot and so dry for so long.

"The recent 12-year, 8-month period is the driest in the 110-years-long record," according to a report this year from Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, which says the declining rainfall pattern "closely resembles the picture provided by climate model simulations of future changes due to enhanced greenhouse gases."

The volume of water flowing into the Murray River at the beginning of this year was the lowest on record. This year heat wave in the southeast state of Victoria, the worst recorded, set the stage for a near-simultaneous explosion of 600 brush fires, the deadliest big burn in the country's history.

Politicians in Canberra, the capital, continue to disagree about the utility of carbon trading in mitigating global warming. But there is no serious disputing that southern Australia must prepare for a much hotter and drier future; the government forecasts that rainfall will decline 22 to 71 percent by 2100.

What all this means for 2 million Australians who live on farms and in towns along the Murray is that communities must die, families must move and a hugely overbuilt irrigation system will have to shrink, experts said.

The government is ready and willing to make the exodus happen, with $3.1 billion in the bank to buy out irrigators and $5.8 billion to upgrade infrastructure. New laws have stripped farmers of guaranteed access to water from the Murray, while creating a market for buying and selling water allocations. As a result, the cost of water has soared and waste of water has sharply declined.

Yet in town after town along the Murray River, residents have been shying away from the future as predicted by scientists and planned for by politicians.

"They really do face a bleak future," said Chris Miller, a social scientist who teaches at Flinders University in Adelaide and has been interviewing farmers along the Murray for 15 months. "But they do not yet believe the water isn't coming back."

<       2

© 2009 The Washington Post Company