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  Yahoo News 20 Apr 07
Australia's drought linked to global warming

by Madeleine Coorey

PlanetArk 20 Apr 07
Drought-Hit Australia to Stop Irrigating Food Bowl
Story by Rob Taylor

CANBERRA - Australia faced an "unprecedentedly dangerous" drought and unless rain falls within weeks irrigation will be cut to the nation's food bowl, Prime Minister John Howard said on Thursday.

A contingency plan prepared for the government said unless water catchments across the country received heavy and widespread rainfalls before mid-May, allocations for irrigators and environmental river flows would be stopped.

"It is a grim situation and there is no point in pretending to Australia otherwise. We must all hope and pray there is rain," Howard told a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra.

Parts of Australia have been in the grip of drought for a decade and the dry is expected to wipe up to one percent off the A$940 billion (US$789 billion) economy in 2006-07.

Howard said there would be enough water for basic human consumption in cities, as well as towns along the critical food bowl of the Murray-Darling River basin. The basin covers an area the size of France and Spain and accounts for 41 percent of Australia's agriculture. "This is very much in the lap of the gods," Howard said.

Australians could face major food price rises if no water is allocated to Murray-Darling Basin farmers, irrigators warned.

The country's worst drought in 100 years, which began in 2002, eased and then reappeared in 2006, and has already severely reduced production of major irrigated crops.

Cotton lint production has plummeted to 250,000 tonnes in 2006/07 from 597,000 tonnes the year before, and from 819,000 tonnes worth almost A$2 billion in 2000/01, before the drought.

Drought has also been affecting Australia's wine grape production, which is estimated to be down by 30 percent in 2007 to 1.3 million tonnes, the smallest harvest since 2000.

Rice production has also collapsed, to 106,000 tonnes in 2006/07 from 1.6 million tonnes before the current dry season. Australia may not have a rice crop at all this season if it gets no irrigation allocations, Laurie Arthur, president of the Ricegrowers Association, told Reuters. "If it stays dry there will potentially be catastrophic losses," he said.

Murray Valley irrigators had no water allocations last year, with dairy farmers hit especially hard. Part of Australia's southeast has received recent rains, lowering the amount of land assessed as severely drought-hit.

At the same time the country's desert outback is awash in rare floodwaters from the tropical north. The March end of the El Nino Pacific Ocean weather pattern which brings severe drought to Australia's populated east has also heartened farmers.

But Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, charged with reforming the water system at a cost of A$10 billion, said even normal winter rains in coming months would not be enough. "We need big rain to make a difference," he said.

Howard said he did not want to talk in "apocalyptic terms" about whether some towns may run out of water completely. "The longer it goes on the harder the impact. These are just stark facts," he said.

Additional reporting by Michael Byrnes in SYDNEY. (US$1=A$1.19)

Yahoo News 20 Apr 07
Australia's drought linked to global warming
by Madeleine Coorey

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, who said the six-year drought was so extreme the country's prime farmland could be left without irrigation water this year, has refused to blame the crisis directly on climate change.

"I recognise the ongoing debate about the link between the two things and I don't vary from that," he said Thursday, announcing that the country faced an "unprecedentedly dangerous" drought crisis.

But scientists said the link between climate change and the drying up of rivers in the vast Murray-Darling Basin, which threatens the survival of Australia's prime agricultural zone, 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.

The Murray-Darling basin 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."

Related articles on Global: Climate change
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