Australia in Grip of Tenacious Drought: 2 Stories

Australian rivers ‘face disaster’ 
By Nick Bryant  BBC News, Sydney 

Australia is facing is worst drought in a century

Parts of Australia’s vital Murray-Darling river basin will be beyond the point of recovery unless they receive water by October.

That is the verdict of an expert panel whose leaked report warns of dire consequences like the loss of wetlands, vegetation and some fish species.

The Green party has hit out at the government for deferring consideration of the report until November.

Australia remains in the grip of its worst drought in a century. The hope is for heavy winter rainfalls.

‘Decades to recover’

The Murray-Darling is Australia’s most important river system. Crossing much of southeast Australia, it irrigates much of the country’s food bowl.

So when scientists warn that parts of the basin will be “beyond the point of recovery” unless they receive water by October, it becomes a matter of serious national concern.

In stark language, the leaked report raises the spectre of an ecological disaster in the lower reaches of the Murray River – wetlands drying out, vegetation lost, some fishes species forced into extinction. Some might already have died out.

Parts of the ecosystem could take decades to recover – parts might be irreversibly lost.

Ministers were presented with the report in May, but decided to defer consideration of its implications until November – a month after the scientists’ deadline.

According to the Green Party, that is an act of environmental vandalism.

It is demanding to know why the government intends to wait seven months until it addresses the report, when its authors have warned of a calamity in six months’ time.

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Australia food bowl areas soon “beyond repair”
Wed Jun 18, 2008 5:50am EDT  By Rob Taylor

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Parts of Australia’s key Murray-Darling river food bowl may be beyond recovery unless a prolonged dry spell and political wrangling over water use ends by October, a leaked scientific report warned on Wednesday.

“There has been 10 years at least that people have said you have got to restore the environmental flows to the system if you wish to keep the natural assets. We have failed to do that,” University of Adelaide ecologist David Paton told local radio.

The Murray-Darling river basin, an area the size of France and Germany, produces 41 percent of Australia’s agriculture and provides $21 billion worth of agricultural exports to Asia and the Middle East, including rice, corn, grapes and dairy.

But the government wants to secure water supplies and repair ailing rivers with an A$13 billion ($12.2 billion), 10-year water plan topped by a A$3 billion deal to buy river water back from irrigators.

The centre-left Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deferred consideration of a scientific report into the crisis facing the basin’s lower reaches until a ministerial meeting with state counterparts in November.

But Paton and other ecologists say much of the river system could be virtually dead by then, with vegetation on the lower Murray lost and fish species driven to extinction.

The lower Murray, where vast wetlands and lakes meet the sea, is an important region for horticulture, vegetable and pasture cropping, as well as dairy farming.

Environment Minister Peter Garrett said the government was aware the situation in the region was critical, but negotiations to better manage water flows were “tough and difficult”.

“Recognizing the seriousness of what’s happening in the lower Murray is something that is front of mind for this government,” he told Reuters. “These are particularly difficult times for the Murray … with such low inflows.”

Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown accused the government of “environmental vandalism” for not acting with more urgency.

“The government’s missing in action when it comes to the greatest river system in this country and the urgent need for action,” Brown said.

Australia, the driest inhabited continent on Earth, has been suffering more than seven years of drought, with water inflows into the nation’s rivers at record lows and farmers facing tough restrictions on irrigation.

Climate scientists have warned the continent is suffering accelerated climate change, with temperatures expected to rise by about 1 degree Celsius by 2030 and rainfall forecast to decrease by up to 20 percent by 2070 in the most populous southeast.

Australia this week cut its wheat output forecast by nearly 9 percent after the return of dry weather during a crucial planting period dashed hopes for a record crop from the world’s second-biggest exporter.

($1=A$1.06)

(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Alex Richardson and Jerry Norton)

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