Australia’s Drought: A Harbinger of Things to Come?

This story hasn’t gotten much coverage in the US, but Australia, which has never had abundant water, has gone through a prolonged drought which appears to be becoming semi-permanent.

This is particularly problematic, not simply in terms of quality of living, but also because Australia is a major agricultural exporter (wheat and cattle), and a team that built a model of the physical inputs and outputs of the economy a few years ago found that Australia was inadequately compensated for the value of the water in its agricultural goods.

A BBC story gives an image of how Sydney will go from being one of the most habitable cities in the world to a more difficult setting:

A new report on the effects of climate change in Australia paints an alarming picture of life in the city of Sydney. It warns that if residents do not cut water consumption by more than 50% over the next 20 years, the city will become unsustainable.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation report also warns that temperatures could rise 5C above the predicted global average.

This would leave the city facing an almost permanent state of drought….

It warns of severe droughts nine out of every 10 years, a dramatic rise in the number of bush fires, and freak storm surges which could devastate the coastline.

Scientists predict that rainfall will fall by 40% by 2070, not only creating a massive water crisis, but producing double the number of bush fires. Heat-related deaths would soar from a current average of 176 a year to 1,300. Sydney would come to resemble the harsh, dry and inhospitable conditions of remote inland towns.

The government of New South Wales, which commissioned the report, has been alarmed by its findings.

Along with America, Australia has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the only two major industrialised nations to do so.

The problem has become so dire that Prime Minister John Howard, neither a tree-hugging nor interventionist type (he actually emulates George Bush, to the horror of many Australians), has proposed a full-bore attempt to deal with the coming water crisis (although without addressing the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to the problem). The Financial Times provided a summary in a story titled “Australian drought spurs Howard to A$10bn water plan:”

John Howard, the Australian prime minister, yesterday announced the most ambitious attempt yet to overhaul the drought-ridden country’s inefficient water management system and improve his environmental credentials ahead of elections later this year.

But the success of the A$10bn (US$7.8bn, €6bn, £4bn) plan could hinge on whether Mr Howard can persuade the six state governments, which dictate water policy, to cede most of that power to the federal government – including management of the Murray-Darling basin, Australia’s most important water resource.

The key part of the plan foresees investing almost A$6bn in new infrastructure such as water pipes in an attempt to save 3,000 giga-litres of water a year. As a sweetener to regain control over the Murray-Darling basin, Canberra is also setting aside A$3bn to buy back water licences from irrigators along the basin, which stretches from Queensland in the north-east to Adelaide, the main city of South Australia….

Australia is enduring its worst drought in a century, pushing the country into what Peter Costello, the treasurer, has called “rural recession”. The last wheat harvest was the lowest in 12 years, crippling exports and helping to send global wheat prices soaring.

“If the drought continues, water will dominate the elections,” said Daniel Connell, a water policy specialist at the Australian National University. “Even if we have a reasonable winter, the water system is fundamentally not in good shape, and this will be a very big political issue for a number of years.”

While water experts welcomed a multi-billion investment in improved water infrastructure, some said it could still prove too little, too late in a country where changes in water management continue to cause fierce controversy.

Politicians in Sydney, which recycles only 2.3 per cent of its water, have been debating for years whether to build a desalination plant.

Meanwhile, inhabitants of Toowoomba rejected a plan last July to make the town the first in Australia to use purified sewage as its key water supply, in what was seen as a litmus test for future water policy.

Kane Goldsworthy, an aquatic scientist working for local councils around Sydney, said: “Any extra money is a good thing but really nothing is going to solve the problem except changing attitudes towards the use of water.”

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