Thursday, April 19, 2007

PM voices dustbowl fears for Australia's breadbasket

To my mind it is the biggest news in Australia this century, if fair dinkum. Maybe even since Federation in 1901.

Prime Minister John Howard appeared on television today and threatened to cut off water supplies to the farmers of the Murray-Darling basin, if there are isn't heavy rainfall in the coming months. :::[Video: SMH]

If you are not familiar with the geography - the Murray Darling Basin is the food basket of Australia, and many other parts of the world that we export to. The immediate upshot of denying these farmers their water allocations is that this would radically increase prices for many food products. The longer term effect is that the many types of crops, citrus, stone fruit and the like, that take up to five years to become established, will die. So will a lot of farming enterprises.

I am completely taken by surprise. Gob-smacked. Yes I know there is a tough drought happening, and that it had been exacerbated up until last month by the El NiƱo Southern Oscillation. Yes I know global warming is very gradually taking its toll, slowly changing the climate in southern Australia to a drier one.

But this announcement has me disturbed.

It still seems so out of the blue. It's also not one that you would imagine a Prime Minister would be happy to make in an election year - why wouldn't a canny man like Howard leave it to his Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Malcolm Turnbull, to take to the podium alone? As I write I am almost starting to hope that this just might be typical Howardian politics, rather than drastic reality. Howard is desperately trying to get the Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks to be part of his $10 billion water initiative; Could he be trying to scare Bracks into signing over his state's water powers to the Federal Government?

Interestingly, the biggest farmers are not panicking. They say they need Mr Howard to clarify what he means before they worry. :::[SMH: Water ban threat questioned]

The owner of one of Australia's 10 largest stone fruit farms is nonplussed by Prime Minister John Howard's declaration that no water will be allocated to irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin for the coming year unless there is substantial rain in the next six weeks.

John Corboy, of Corboy Fresh Fruits, which operates 400 hectares near Shepparton in Victoria, said he would need more information on what Mr Howard means by "very substantial" inflows into the Murray-Darling Basin before he paid attention to it.

Mr Howard did not specify how much rain would be needed by the end of May to make irrigation allocations a possibility.

Here is what Howard said:

"Unless there are very substantial inflows - and for that read heavy rain leading to run-off into the catchment areas - prior to mid-May 2007, there will be insufficient water available to allow any allocation at the commencement of the 2007-08 water year for irrigation, the environment or for any purposes other than critical urban supplies."

And what Corboy said in response when asked:

"It's not enough to really comment on, other than, 'Hang on mate, you're flying off the handle here and you're being fairly emphatic when there's so many unknowns.' "

"Realistically we're out of the el nino effect and the indicators are showing us that clearly, the oceans temperatures have come back to normal. The pundits are telling us within our area that we have 50 per cent chance of having higher than average rainfall [this season]."

"People tend to be getting into the view that it's just never going to rain again, well that's not the case, it will, we just don't when. And there's only one bloke who knows when it will, and he's not giving interviews."

I think I'll go with the man on the land this time. The manner in which the announcement was made seemed a touch incongruent for the gravitas of the situation - if it was for real. In addition, when one journalist queried whether the drought was linked to climate change, Howard was completely emphatic in saying that it was not.

How can anyone be so sure?

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