SYDNEY — First a devastating drought grips the nation. Now bush fires have begun burning down houses. And the real sting of summer is still months away.

A cruel summer could quickly put paid to the world-beating performance of the national economy. Much as we pride ourselves on being a high-tech, sophisticated economy, Australia still clings to its historic dependence on land-based exports from farming and mining. And right now farms and mines are in the grip of water shortages.

Each morning a water tanker rolls into Coolabah — the first country town to run out of water — to refill the town’s dried-out water system. Soon a lot more tankers will be shuttling across the drought zone to truck in supplies from the nearest dams that still have water.

Don’t panic, urges John Aquilina, the aptly named Sydney-based water-conservation minister. Shifting around water should ensure enough is available until the rains come. Sure, and the wet season is five months away.

While Europe, Asia and North America has been inundated by floods, the southern hemisphere has endured the opposite. El Nino has once again been up to its tricks of causing heavy rains in the North and long dry spells in the South.

Cattle and sheep bred for the American and Japanese meat trade are dying. Their skeletons lie beside those of kangaroos on the grassless plains. The market effect, like that of the wheat trade, will be felt for years to come both here and abroad.

Worse, the bush-fire season has started early. Instead of the usual burn-outs of outer suburban houses at Christmas time, the first fires lit up Sydney skies last week. On one hot day 10 homes on one street were destroyed and 12 others badly damaged by fire.

The public’s shock was heightened because we thought we had learned something from past mistakes. Arsonists were identified as having been the cause of 330 fires during last summer’s Black Christmas. A total of 132 pyromaniacs were detained and police opened a computer file on idiots known to have started fires.

But the latest shock blaze that swept down Woronora Valley, eating up dry scrub as well as houses, was not started by addled adolescents. A repair crew from Sydney’s water board, who used open-flame torches, are believed to be the culprits. Valley dwellers rendered homeless are threatening to sue the government agency for billions.

The scandal of repeat bush fires and the apathy of governments to contain if not prevent them is sure to be the raging political row of coming months. In the state of New South Wales, Premier Bob Carr is facing a close election next March. He is everywhere these days where there is a natural disaster. He is busing media packs around the drought zone to ensure city dwellers see on television the beneficence of his drought relief schemes.

The old game of state governments blaming the federal government in Canberra and vice versa is getting shriller by the day. The issue of who will do most for farmers is a touchy one, more so as city folk know their taxes will be siphoned off for the emergency relief schemes. These patch-up payouts are for emergencies that keep coming back.

In Queensland, where 43 shires have been declared drought-stricken, Premier Peter Beattie won kudos by announcing a $500,000 grant to a new public appeal named the Farmhand Foundation. The funds, added to that state’s $80 million relief last year, will be distributed through the Red Cross to needy farm families.

The farmhand foundation is itself in hot water. The nation’s richest and most powerful businessmen announced it last week in a flurry of self-congratulatory publicity. Even aged publisher Kerry Packer, Australia’s richest man, put in a rare appearance.

The philanthropic concept is good; it’s the suspicion of self-serving that’s getting up a few noses. Radio DJ Alan Jones let the cat out of the bag when, during the kickoff announcement, he claimed: “I will continue to pursue this matter with the prime minister of watering Australia with Telstra money.”

Telstra is the country’s biggest telecom, 51 percent owned by the federal government, which wants to sell its share. The Labour Party-led opposition in Parliament has stymied what could be a highly lucrative deal. The government under John Howard is itself at odds over the vote-losing issue. The powerful farm lobby won’t have a bar of it until Telstra guarantees perfect telecom reception across the outback.

Enter the talkative Jones letting the cat out of the bag. The way to fix both a Telstra sale and the antagonistic farm lobby is to divert sale proceeds to the outback. Jones’ colleagues on the farmhand panel announcing what was supposed to be a purely philanthropic deal must have fumed. They were Bob Mansfield, chairman of Telstra, and John Hartigan, head of Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd., Telstra’s partner in the giant pay-television firm, Foxtel.

The coziness of it all did not escape David Marr, a tell-all journalist on Media Watch. Media Watch has the freedom of the government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp. to reveal the slip-ups made by the country’s often-bullying commercial television and newspapers. Marr slanted his story so that the drought relief scheme appeared to be a backdoor way for the media moguls to snatch up Telstra

Next the poor Farmhand Foundation got a drubbing from an unlikely corner — science. The millions of dollars the country’s seven wealthiest businessmen gave to kick-start drought relief was, as one of them explained, aimed at drought-proofing Australia. The ever-voluble Jones explained that this could be had partly by diverting rivers that flow eastward to the Pacific across the Great Dividing Range into the outback.

This idea is a pipe dream that has been cherished by Australian idealists for at least a century — and laughed out of court by pragmatists for just as long. Scientists who for years have pleaded with governments to spend funds on practical water-saving measures quickly leaped into the fray.

“You can’t drought-proof Australia,” scoffed Professor Peter Cullen, an ecology expert. “We need to try to live with the landscape, not fight against it all the time.”

The world’s driest continent will never, according to the government’s land and water expert John Williams, be devoid of drought, “but with better land and water use policies, a lot of the impacts would be greatly modified.”

The experts sent off their own reform plan to Canberra, urging that farmers be charged the full cost of water. They noted that three-quarters of taxpayer-funded water used goes to irrigate rice, cotton and dairy products for a return of only $167 for every million liters used.

That argument will go down like a lead balloon, particularly as horror stories emerge from the drought zone. The “something must be done” brigade will doubtless talk it to death, the fate of all past schemes.

Trouble is the worst drought in a decade will strip $6 billion from farmers this year, prices of fresh food will jump and economic growth will fall below the 3.75 percent forecast by Canberra.

Farm exports, many to Japan, will drop 7 percent to $29 billion. Total commodity exports will, happily, remain steady at $90 billion because oil, coal and copper prices are higher. Even so, Australia’s economy always rises and falls with what happens — and doesn’t happen — in the bush.

“If we don’t get rain within the next couple of weeks, we’re going to see less cropping production than forecast,” says National Farmers Federation President Peter Corish.

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