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Australian Drought Takes Its Toll
Posted Mar 16,2009

Samantha (at left) and Natalie Turner sweep sludge from a trough on their family’s drought-stricken farm in New South Wales, Australia.

The diesel engine clatters to life. My friend Mike is giving me a quick lesson in how to operate his father’s bulldozer. Accompanied by a cacophony of metal on metal, I maneuver pedals and levers. I lower the blade and begin knocking down trees. I’m helping build a logging road near Prospect, Oregon. Despite a lack of finesse, I’m making progress and having fun. I’m on top of the world.

When I read Robert Draper’s “Australia’s Dry Run” and look at Amy Toensing’s photographs in this month’s issue, I’m reminded of that day three decades ago when I was young and didn’t understand the potential consequences of bulldozers.

A decade ago the farmers of the Murray-Darling Basin were on top of the world. Their machinery had cut 15 billion trees; leveled fields; planted crops; built canals, weirs, and locks to divert water; and turned the basin into Australia’s breadbasket.

Now the water is gone. A seven-year drought is taking its toll, and battles rage over the dwindling supply. “The last three years we’ve had essentially no water. That’s what’s killing us,” says Malcolm Adlington, a dairy farmer who has had to sell all his heifers (six years ago he had nearly 500). There is no shortage of claimants for the water—from farmers to conservationists to the city of Adelaide.

The bulldozers that reshaped the basin are gone. But questions remain. What caused the drought? Climate change? Is deforestation breaking the natural cycles of rainfall? Slowly, the questions are being answered, with solutions to follow. In the meantime, the world watches and, hopefully, learns.


Photo: Amy Toensing

Posted by National Geographic Staff | Comments (5)
Filed Under: Editor's Note, Environment
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Anthony St. John
Mar 16, 2009 10AM #

“Australia's Dry Run” is most obviously a preview of coming events for my state of California, especially when one takes into consideration the grave warnings NGM already gave us in your “”Drying of the West” February 2008 issue, along with many other “Global Warning” type issues since 2004 at least.

First, our number one problem in California to begin with are the failures of our state and local politicians to take your grave warnings seriously even though those of us in San Diego have already experienced hellacious 2003 and 2007 firestorms with out of control death and destruction. In the meantime our population is already outstripping our resources, interactive sea level climate change maps are being produced so we can decide whether we will need rowboats at least, drug wars are out of control along our borders and our economy is in severe recession.

In California our biggest global warming problem today is the fact that our state and local politicians don’t even respect years of warnings by California’s own university scientists. Our politicians don't even take current events seriously enough to fast track desalination much less implement serious water conservation that your warnings and those of our scientific establishment have justified far too many times already.

Maybe we are fortunate the housing bubble burst the hard way, but we still need jobs, our agricultural industry is in jeopardy, while poverty, crime, clean water, heat, disease and other health and public safety problems escalate daily placing California at totally unacceptable risk already.

By coincidence, San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye summarized our state and local political culture best in your July 2006 article on “Loving Our Coasts To Death” when she said: "Let me tell you, dirty water, dirty politics, it all comes from the same source."

So much for “Go West Young Man” but where do we migrate to now as the years just keep passing by with no significant fossil fuel burning reductions to even begin to achieve Bill McKibben’s “350 Or Bust” goal?

Meanwhile the powers that be just keep arguing, marginalizing the warnings of NGM and our own university scientists and accomplishing nothing to prevent environmental, social, and economic collapse in California where we have already suffered political collapse. It doesn’t really matter how much global warming is due to fossil fuel burning as opposed to natural earth forces that determine our environmental conditions and future quality of life, the fact of paramount importance today is that unacceptable consequences of climate change are occurring much more rapidly than scientists forecast even in the last few years, and some tipping points appear to be toppling already.

At this point, the imperative is to adapt to these changes and consequences no matter what the cause.

Under the current conditions, it appears that either we evolve more rapidly than ever before, or fail the tests of survival that Earth is presenting us with out of control forces of change already.

One creative aspect of human nature that may still save us now that we are suffering the consequences of a two century old industrial economy is our ability to communicate instantly around the world to solve problems together, which seems to be a most important new factor that can determine whether we are successful in saving and protecting an acceptable quality of life.

So I ask you Chris, have the descendants of “Mitochondrial Eve” and “Nuclear Adam” evolved enough to save ourselves yet?

Mar 16, 2009 10AM #

A hometown friend from Pennsylvania alerted me to your article on the ongoing drought in southeastern Australia, where I've lived for the last 12 years. I read the piece online and although I applaud your intention to bring this terrible situation to the notice of worldwide readers, I was dismayed by several things about it.

One was the peculiar position of Adelaide, listed first among "players" promised water from the overallocated Murray-Darling river system. This wrongly implies that a relatively small urban area of about 1.2 million people is Australia's Los Angeles: a desert metropolis drunk on entitlement and sucking the upstream farmers dry.

In fact, your article states in a later paragraph, correctly, that South Australia draws only 6% of all the water taken from the Murray-Darling system. This is less water than is actually lost to evaporation due to inefficient irrigation practice upstream (such as the enormous, manmade Menindee Lakes storage system in New South Wales or open-channel systems like the one flowing through farmer Malcolm Adlington's landscape).

Further to this, the proposed weir at Wellington in South Australia is not meant to create more drinking water for Adelaide, as your article incorrectly claims, but to allow two large, exposed and acidified lakebeds (Albert and Alexandrina, normally freshwater bodies) to fill with seawater, thus preventing further soil acidification. (This is a highly charged and contentious issue.)

The writer also asks whether the scope of this drought will mean desalination plants for Australian cities. There are a number of desalination plants already in operation in Australia, with others (including one in Adelaide) currently under construction.

A bit less seriously, there was also an amazing caption cheerily asserting that the South Australian government encourages the state's residents to shower together, and over buckets, no less. I'm sure the state's opposition government would be overjoyed if this were true—their dirty work would be done as voters simply laughed the current government out of office.

In truth, many Australians live under permanent water restrictions. In Adelaide, people were for some time required to use buckets to water our gardens. Hoses are permitted now (with restrictions), but people are not complacent. Adelaide has more household rainwater tanks per capita than any other city in Australia, and some of us even use greywater recycling systems to pump used laundry water into our gardens -- thus sparing our children the gross indignity of having to bathe together with their parents.

Finally, there are basic errors of fact here, such as the statement that the Murray ends in the Indian Ocean. In fact, the river mouth is located at Goolwa, South Australia, on the Southern Ocean.

It is disappointing that an article that will likely be read far and wide should misrepresent an issue that is not only of enormous consequence to all Australians but also worth the attention of readers around the world. That the information here does not withstand close consideration is both a missed opportunity and a shame.

Mar 16, 2009 10AM #

We appreciate your comments. The thoughts and opinions of our readers are important to us, and I will see that yours are circulated among my colleagues on the editorial staff.

You might be interested to know that the Society’s maps do not generally label the Southern Ocean. The following comes from our Style Manual:

Southern Ocean, Antarctic Ocean

These place-names are not recognized by NGS but are sometimes used in the Southern Hemisphere and by scientists to designate those parts of the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans surrounding Antarctica.

The following explanation appears on plate 96 of the National Geographic Atlas of the World: About 1,600 km off-shore is the Antarctic Convergence, where cold waters meet warmer waters from the north, enclosing a distinct ecosystem sometimes called the Southern Ocean. Another explanation prepared by NG Maps says:

The Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans merge into ice waters around Antarctica. Some define this as an ocean calling it the Antarctic Ocean, Austral Ocean, or Southern Ocean but there is no agreement on the name and the extent of a fifth ocean.

Mar 16, 2009 10AM #

It's sad that the famers' lobby does not want to recognize the consequences of its actions. Stupidity joined by stubbornness.

F. Friedrich Kling
Mar 16, 2009 10AM #

While the comments noted by "Barb" may be scientifically accurate the vast majority of readers do not parse such intricacies, and the overall scenario described by NGC is spot on correct. Thanks, NGC, for educating us on issues of critical import, but often usurped by stupid celebrity gossip.

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