Parched in Australia: Drought Changes Views on Warming

Australia has entered its fourth year of drought, and desperate farmers are selling livestock and worrying about a drop in land prices. A 10 percent increase in global wheat prices is another consequence of Australia’s drought. Extreme weather patterns have prompted Australian leaders to drop their skepticism about global warming and express some concerns. Like the US, Australia refused to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty designed to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming. Initially, Australians were upset that the treaty did not impose similar controls on fast-growing developing nations like China and India. But as the drought eliminates livelihoods, a majority of Australians support action on climate change, even if the costs are significant. More political leaders and citizens realize that protecting the environment goes hand in hand with a good economy. – YaleGlobal

Parched in Australia: Drought Changes Views on Warming

Tim Johnston
Thursday, November 16, 2006

Australia's long hot summer has barely begun, but already the dams are running dry, crops are stunted from lack of water, and livestock markets are being overwhelmed by farmers trying to sell sheep and cattle they cannot feed.

Australia's drought is now in its fourth year, and out in the vast expanses of the Australian outback, where farms that can be the size of small nations mold a hardy breed of farmer, there is desperation.

"The crunch has really come," said Alan McCormack, who farms 3,300 hectares, or 8,100 acres, in the heart of the eastern state of New South Wales, about 250 kilometers, or 150 miles, from Sydney. "This spring drought has pushed everyone into the same position. They don't know where they are going to go; they don't know what they are going to do; they don't know how they are going to get through it."

Stock-sale yards in rural towns like Wagga Wagga are seeing record numbers of sheep and cattle passing through their pens as farmers offload stock at fire-sale prices rather than have them die in barren pastures. Prices for sheep are down by as much as 80 percent in some areas, and cattle by 40 percent.

The latest report from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics paints a dire picture for the country's agricultural sector. More than half the country's farmland is now officially classified as drought-stricken, and the bureau says that production of the three main resource crops - wheat, barley and canola - will be cut by more than 60 percent this year.

The bureau also expects the drought to cut growth in the country's gross domestic product by 0.7 percentage point this year.

The drought is now affecting Australia's political environment as much as its agricultural landscape. In recent weeks, the government has announced 1.1 million Australian dollars, or $850,000, in assistance for farmers, bringing the total over the past four years to almost 2.3 billion dollars. It is mostly short-term assistance, in part to stave off farm repossessions by the banks, which many fear could spark a collapse in land prices.

But the biggest change has been to the government's position on global warming. Surveys have repeatedly shown that the Australian electorate is worried about the climate, but the drought has brought those fears to a head and forced Prime Minister John Howard's governing coalition to abandon its skeptical position and demonstrate its concern.

"Certainly, it has taken people beyond the denial phase on climate change," said Senator Bill Heffernan, a member of the coalition and until recently a rare campaigner within government for more action on global warming.

"For the first time the cities are focused on their worries about the future of water supply," he said. "Everyone has taken for granted that you turn the tap on and water comes out. I think they now can see that that might not necessarily continue to be the case."

In a recent survey by the Sydney- based Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australians ranked global warming third among critical threats to the country's future, beaten only by international terrorism and nuclear proliferation. 68 percent of the survey's respondents agreed with the statement that immediate steps should be taken to tackle the problem even if doing so involve significant cost.

The Australian government has come under considerable pressure both at home and abroad for its refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement on limiting greenhouse-gas emissions. But until recently it has resisted, saying that because the agreement does not include either China or India, it would achieve little. Australia is also one of the world's largest users and exporters of fossil fuels, particularly coal, and the government feared that cutting emissions would be costly to the economy.

Australia did sign up to the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which promises to search for technological solutions to the challenge of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. Canberra has accelerated its technology program, recently approving a wind farm and a 420-million-dollar solar collector, but the government and Heffernan have hinted that the change in mood might mean that other measures, such as carbon trading, could be reassessed.

The indirect effects of the Australian drought are being felt worldwide: Global wheat prices recently hit a 10-year high, fueled by supply worries sparked by the country's dismal crop forecasts.

In the farming heartland of the western part of New South Wales, farmers are turning livestock loose on their stunted fields of wheat and barley.

"The main crops have failed. They're not even good enough to make hay or silage," Steve Ridley, an agent with Elders, one of Australia's biggest rural services suppliers, said at his office in the rural town of Goulburn, where drought restrictions are so severe that water usage is limited to just 150 liters, or 40 gallons, per resident per day.

Around Goulburn, where normally there would be 28 inches, or 71 centimeters, of rain, there has been only 14 inches so far this year, and regions of western New South Wales have had even less. Ridley said that many farmers are "hanging on by their fingernails."

"It's not only this dry year, it's the culmination of five or six dry years. Anyone who had any cash reserves has lost those now and they've gone into debt."

McCormack, who runs 12,000 sheep and some 700 cattle on his property, has taken on an extra 200,000 dollars of debt over the past four years and expects this year to be even worse. "Our pastures are worn out because we've had years and years of not having the money to put back into the property," he said.

Last season he managed to take 400,000 dollars' worth of hay from his pastures for winter feed. "This year we'll get zilch, nothing." He will have to buy in this year's winter feed, and prices are already rising rapidly.

The effects are also being felt throughout the rural economy. Darryl Clarkson, a salesman at a car dealership in Goulburn, said that sales are down 20 percent as farmers put off replacing their utility vehicles and four-wheel drives.

The government's shifting attitude has given new hope to McCormack, the farmer. For the past two years he has had approval to build a wind farm with 31 turbines, but until three weeks ago, power companies were showing little interest in the project. McCormack says they are now starting a bidding war to build the turbines.

Once built, the wind farm will provide a steady source of drought-resistant income for McCormack, but he is one of the lucky ones. Few other people have an appropriate site, and to date almost no one else has permission to build one.

Other farmers are struggling on as best they can, and some are not making it. Ridley, of Elders, said suicide rates are climbing rapidly. In response to the crisis, Elders has offered two hours of free counseling for its clients, and its Web page on drought resources provides a selection of emergency hot line contacts for those in need.

Last Friday, the rural town of Crookwell organized a "Look After Your Mate" meeting aimed at creating some kind of safety net for rural communities suffering from the drought. They expected somewhere between 150 and 200 people. Over 500 turned up.

Copyright © 2006 The International Herald Tribune