Aussies busy battling worst drought ever


SYDNEY — Summer has struck early, and already it’s a vicious one. Half of Australia is suffering its worst drought on record. Oven-hot winds are sweeping fires through tinder-dry bush land toward the major cities. And that’s just for starters.

True, the nation’s economy is still riding high, but Federal Treasurer Peter Costello warns Australia could be heading into recession because of this freakish weather.

Drought is etched in the Australian psyche. After 200 years of white settlement, we should know that long dry spells are our natural climate and be prepared for them with the world’s most advanced water-saving systems. And we are, to a degree. But this time we look ill-prepared. At last tardy governments are spending billions of rescue dollars and are even turning to water desalination plants.

And, oh, the talk and accusations. There’s nothing like drought and bush fires to fuel an Australian talkfest. The blame game is hopping from Canberra to state-capital governments and back again. Why didn’t you do something earlier to save us? Give us unlimited billions of dollars, voter-provoked state premiers respond to Canberra, and we will, sooner or later, beat this natural disaster. Well, yes, it might rain first.

Truth to tell, it’s a bit late to rescue ourselves from this season. Food prices are on the rise. Wheat crops, a major export earner, are falling, with harvest estimates down by a half. Canberra’s rate-fixing Reserve Bank is being urged to stop raising interest rates in order to shelter consumers from rising living costs.

Like worldwide worries over government inaction to protect the depleting ozone layer, this national disaster is producing much blame and little action. This week state and federal governments are increasing their handouts to income-hit farm families. And still no workable policy in sight to break these cyclic heartbreaks.

The first national audit of water resources conducted by the National Water Commission has found that state governments are continuing to fail in water management. That stinging indictment was leaked to the press just before an inaugural meeting of the Council for the Australian Federation. Revelations of past opportunities lost took the wind out of the sails of state premiers who had intended to grandstand against Canberra’s niggardly handouts to their promises of patchwork water-saving schemes.

On the attack, Federal Secretary for Water Malcolm Turnbull bluntly told the states: “You can’t manage what you don’t understand.” His point was that only a handful of Australia’s pitifully few rivers are protected and irrigation farmers drawing on them have been allowed to waste precious river flows.

Ever ready for a verbal punchup, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie accused the Howard government of “political bastardry.” Only “piddly amounts” of Canberra cash had seeped through for water reform, he said. Besides, that press leak was just what conservative-government Canberra would do to embarrass the Labor Party state governments.

Still, the state premiers, who really control river flows and the needed reforms, must be embarrassed by the barrage of advice coming from respected water scientists. As tough new water restrictions were being imposed on four major cities, Peter Cullen was warning farmers they would have to give up water allocations in favor of the drying-up cities.

Cullen, a key architect of federal and Victorian state water policies, reminded Victorian Premier Steve Bracks that he had signed a national water initiative allowing farmers to sell their water rights to city consumers: “You can buy it or you can take it,” Cullen warned. “I think farmers would prefer it is bought.”

Prime Minister John Howard is responding with characteristic calm. He says his preference is to cooperate with the states rather than take over control. “I grew up in Sydney,” he announced slyly. “I’ve got to say the failure to build dams outside Sydney over the last 10 or 20 years has been scandalous.”

And Howard has a big cheer squad of Sydneysiders fed up with hosing restrictions that are leaving gardens withered. Long-serving New South Wales Premier Bob Carr suddenly quit last year after tripping off to the Middle East to inspect a water desalination plant for Sydney. His belated solution quickly went down the gurgler. These days Sydney householders are busily fitting water-catching tanks to tide over their gardens.

Meteorologists suspect the climate-changing El Nino effect is worsening in the Pacific Ocean. After six years of drought in Australia, another adverse El Nino is adding to fears this negative climatic flow-on will will worsen this summer. Already in the main fruit-growing Goulburn-Murray irrigation area, rainfall records are the lowest in 110 years.

Almost all of the most populous New South Wales state is officially declared drought stricken. Farmers are warning food prices could well skyrocket, fueling an inflation blowout.

Leafy Sydney suburbs are in early danger. An extra $3 million will be spent to bring in water-bombing helicopters from the U.S. Local fire chief Phil Koperberg estimates 350,000 homes are at risk.

So disaster conscious have people become that calls are rising for Australia to reverse its international position and accept the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change. But the ever-calm prime minister says he does not see the need to go that far.

Howard’s farm minister, Ian Macdonald, is a bit more on the jittery side: “For the first time in generations, we have a drought across the southern half of the continent. If we don’t get rain by March or April, water supply problems will be diabolical.”

The politicians know they will be blamed for all those wasted years when the world’s driest continent put off the tough decisions. The media are already gearing up for the attack. “The states are to blame for water problems, not nature,” thundered the national daily, The Australian.

“The failure is a lack of foresight rooted in political pork-barreling to rural irrigators and greed at the expense of city water users. The result is environmental degradation, a crisis in agriculture during periods of low rainfall, and the absurd situation of water rationing in a country at the peak of its prosperity.”

For the city-dwelling Australian, these hot, dry days of revenge are all too bewildering. We’ll do what we must is a typical response. Or, as one eminent water scientist suggests, let us pray.