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waiting for the rains « Previous | |Next »
May 22, 2005

The rains have not been falling in southern Australia and the country continues to be in the grip of drought. The media flows last week were full of pictures of starving stock, dusty paddocks and despairing farmers. The politics is one of the farmers wanting the government to help them through the hard times until the rains come.

Geoff Pryor

Those living in the inner city of Sydney would not know all that much of the dustbowl conditions in Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, northern Victoria or western NSW. The glittering appearances of the spectacle of a global city at work and play suggests that it operates as if the economy is disconnected from its roots in ecological life.

What the urbanites saw last week was the farmers with the welfare mentality with their hands out. As Philippa Murray writes:

The sound of wailing farmers reached a near deafening roar last week as drought tightened its grip on huge tracts of eastern Australia. The loudest cries were for government to ease the plight of the rural sector with more cash and assistance.

This is short term thinking.

Maybe many of the farms are no longer viable? Maybe flogging the land to the last blade of grass makes no sense anymore. Maybe drought, which was once considered a natural disaster, is now a common occurrence? Maybe the way agriculture is being done needs re-thinking.

What we do know is the pressure needs to be taken off the land. One way to do that is to enable the farmers to leave their land with dignity as some land should not be farmed. Another way is for farmers to be paid for providing environmental services to the community: eg., planting trees, reducing erosion, improving water quality and rivers,and protecting and increasing biodiversity so that the community reaped the benefits of clean air and water.

Will that happen? That implies long term strategies to reduce the impacts of drought and climate change. There is little evidence of that coming from Canberra at the moment.

Update: 24 May 2004
Peter Cullen, writing in The Age, supports the above argument. He says that:

"....some areas of Australia were looking like "basket cases" and should no longer be farmed. We should stop hoping for rain in these areas and realise that with climate change it is just going to get tougher. Up to 10 per cent of farming land was now unsustainable. It is no point throwing money at people. We need to work out how to get them off the land with dignity."

And the former head of the CSIRO's land and water division, John Williams, said Australians had forgotten the variability of the nation's climate and started farming land that previous generations would not have farmed.
Unsustainable areas included parts of the Mallee across Victoria, NSW and South Australia; SA's Eyre Peninsula; and some parts of western NSW and central Queensland.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:16 PM | | Comments (7)


I love it.

Agriculture uses an awful lot of our fresh-water. Especially in NSW. Politically, agriculture will continue to be subsidised and forcing rice and cotton out is probably politically impossible. Yet both those industries use over twice as much, each, as all of NSW/ACT residential usage.

The regional and country towns are suffering a water crisis because industrial agriculture uses nearly 78% of it in NSW/ACT.

If water went to a market solution, where the farms has to pay for water by the kilolitre on a water market, how much would that add to the cost of water?

Would the cost rise be enough to make rice and cotton economically unfeasable?

this is a very interesting article from the uk's 'the guardian' newspaper in relation to this...,7792,1346106,00.h

Sydney dispatch

Plunder down under

David Fickling on how agriculture is drinking Australia dry

Monday November 8, 2004

Australia may be dry but it is not parched. The perception of the
country as a "wide, brown land" is widespread but it does not bear much
relation to the reality of living there.
Certainly, Australia is the driest continent in terms of rainfall per
square kilometre. But, unless you are a biologist, that is not a very
useful way of considering aridity. Governments are concerned about the
quantity of fresh water available for each resident, and on that measure
the country is swimming.
Australia's small population and fertile coastline mean that the average
resident has access to three times as much fresh water as the average
Dutch citizen and 170 times as much as the average Jordanian. If the
country had the same population as the US, which covers a roughly
similar area of land, Australia would be in trouble. But, in fact, it
has the same population as Texas and considerably more water.
The entire north and north-east of the continent have the same, humid
climate as south-east Asia and China; its southern edges have the
Mediterranean climate of Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey; weather on the
south-east coast is like that in the UK. Sydney, Brisbane and Darwin get
twice as much annual rainfall as London, and Adelaide is the only
Australian state capital to get less rain than the British capital.
Even when you take into account the continent's drought-and-dearth
climate and the higher rates of evaporation under the southern sun,
Australia's renewable fresh water supply is still roughly three times
that of the UK's. In Europe, only Norway and Russia have greater
supplies of fresh water.
None of this is to say that Australia should be profligate with its
water. Indeed, it is heartening that, on the whole, Australians take
conservation of their resources so seriously. The rest of the world
could learn a great deal from a country where, as in Western Australia,
three-quarters of homes have dual-flushing toilets and two-fifths have
low-flow shower heads.
But there is something false about the apocalyptic tone that normally
attends discussion of water here. State premiers scare their citizens
with bedtime horror stories of dry times ahead and raise phantom images
of coastal cities dying of thirst. Reports warn that even modest levels
of immigration will raise the population to levels that will drink
Australia dry. Average suburban Aussies believe that it is their
washing-up bowls and morning showers that are draining the water from
their continent.
But while Australian householders are getting out their ration cards,
farmers are sitting down to a banquet. In 2000, the country used 25m
gigalitres of water - roughly enough to fill Loch Lomond 10,000 times
over. Just 2m gigalitres of that total went to households, and nearly
half of that, in turn, was used to water gardens. The vast bulk of it -
17m gigalitres, nearly 7,000 Loch Lomonds - was used in farming.
And yet farming is rarely discussed when the question of Australia's
water shortage comes up. A government-sponsored water conservation
website,, offers advice on "greywater" treatment
systems, rainwater tanks and the best economy dishwashers for use in
restaurants, but makes no mention of the big irrigation industries that
consume most of Australia's water.
That blind spot is depressingly common. Water shortages are a matter of
constant debate in Australia, but no one ever seems to question why so
much water goes to agriculture. In fact, the only time the words
"agriculture" and "water" are linked in Australian public discourse is
when a drought year comes round in the four-year El Nino cycle, and
Australians are hit with pleas to increase allocation for the
beleaguered farmers.
Putting agriculture into the equation gives the lie to some of the
discussion about the unsustainability of immigration. Since the late
1960s Australia's population has nearly doubled to 20 million people, a
far greater increase than the usual projections up to 2050. But, while
in the past 40 years unprecedented strain has been put on the water
supply, it is not because of all the new householders: domestic water
usage has increased by 500,000 gigalitres since the late 1960s, but the
water diverted for agriculture has gone up by 10m gigalitres - 20 times
the amount allocated to households.
Of course, Australia needs agriculture as much as any other country
does. But the amount of water used on the country's farms is out of all
proportion to their social, environmental or economic value. Vast
amounts of the dry continent's precious water supply goes not towards
growing the country's food supply but supporting politically sensitive
Take sugar. Travel up the east coast from northern New South Wales to
the far north of Queensland and you pass endless stands of sugar cane.
Thousands of hectares of coastal forest were pulled down to make way for
the cane farms that now dot a string of marginal electoral seats along
the country's east coast.
A century ago, sugar was a profitable industry - not least because most
of the workers were indentured labourers from Melanesia, living in
conditions one rung above slavery. Nowadays, a global oversupply has
made the cane industry so uneconomic that Canberra levies three cents on
every kilo bag of sugar, to stop the country's 6,500 cane farmers going
bankrupt. But while local pundits view the 330 gigalitres a year used in
flushing toilets as a profligate waste of resources, the 800 gigalitres
used growing sugar is rarely commented upon.
Cane is not even the worst culprit. One way of measuring the efficiency
of water usage is to work out how much of the resource you need for a
dollar's worth of finished product. On this measure, healthcare and
education use seven litres of water for each Australian dollar (40p),
banking uses nine litres, and most manufacturing comes in at less than
50 litres.
Irrigated agriculture consumes scales of magnitude more water. It takes
1,200 litres to make a dollar's-worth of sugar and 1,500 litres to make
dairy products or cotton to the same value. The most thirsty crop is
rice, which consumes 7,500 litres of water for every dollar of value.
You might not have thought a place as dry as Australia would be in the
rice business. But dotted along the Murray River valley, the continent's
only major river, there are dozens of farms that collectively use almost
as much water growing rice as Australia's 20 million people use for all
household purposes.
The Murray has a pivotal role in Australian geography and history.
Aborigines once built fish farms and Europeans floated paddle-steamers
along it; its floodplain cuts a fertile swathe through south-eastern
Australia, supporting unique flora and fauna. Adelaide would be a desert
without it.
But like its American counterpart the Colorado, the Murray's flow is
declining. Salinity is making the land surrounding it barren, and only
rarely does water issue from its mouth. Upstream, on the farms of
Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, there is water aplenty; rarely
does any of it meet the sea. The Murray is dying so that Australia can
export rice to China.
That is no idle claim. An exhaustive scientific report last year
concluded that the degradation of the river could only be arrested by
returning 1,500 gigalitres to the river a year; local farmers have even
squealed at a more modest agreement to return 500 gigalitres.
But rice on its own uses 2,000 gigalitres of the Murray each year, and
Australia's 800 cotton growers, who are also mainly based around the
Murray, use 2,900 gigalitres of water each year. That last figure is
equivalent to 18 times the amount of water used by the UK's entire
irrigated agriculture industry.
How can a country that cries water poor continue to consume it in this
manner? How can a country with one-third of the population of the UK use
nearly 100 times as much water on irrigated farming and then lay the
blame on householders for their bathroom habits?
It is not that water restrictions should be loosened. Australian cities
still need to conserve water, partly because they depend upon the
relatively small amount in local catchments, not the total supply in
this vast country.
Some farming is also necessary to support the population, nutritionally
and economically, but a dry continent, such as Australia, should be
concentrating on cereal crops, fruit and vegetables and livestock rather
than cotton, rice, and sugar, which together account for more than
one-third of the country's agricultural water usage.
If Australia were serious about preserving its water, it would not
tolerate the vast waste and devastation of native environments that this
amount of irrigated agriculture entails. There is a beam in the eye of
the farming industry, while householders fret about the motes in their
own. Water conservation may begin at home but it should not end there.

Handouts for incompetent businessmen. Crap, unless of course you want flick some my way?

David Fickling comments:

"Water shortages are a matter of constant debate in Australia, but no one ever seems to question why so much water goes to agriculture. In fact, the only time the words "agriculture" and "water" are linked in Australian public discourse is when a drought year comes round in the four-year El Nino cycle, and Australians are hit with pleas to increase allocation for the
beleaguered farmers."

So true isn't it.

What is being askedby the NFF is a replacement of farm business related interst rate subsidies available to indebted farmers with direct cash grants.

The aim is to support viable farm businesses to preserve their natural and productive resource base during periods of severe climatic stress, so that are in a position to recover and contribute to Australia's export economy.

Nothing there about farmers providing environmental services in return for the direct cash grant. Mutual obligation is only for the unemployed not for farmers. Farmers are not obligated to do anything for the commmunity.

After most of a lifetime spent in and around agriculture, all I can say is that far too many farmer's don't belong on the land.

The basic levels of land and business management are just not there - and too many of these people are either too thick or to locked into their 'traditional' mindset to change.

Basically you are bang on the money Gary, these turkey's are the first to bang on the drum of mutual obligation for others (particularly urban unemployed and indigenous people), but one week without rain and they're down to Centrelink and the Local Member's offices.

My apologies to all the farmer's that have a clue - they generally don't have their hand's out anyway.

Re Fickling's dispatch, I do question the validity of comparing quantities of water used when the value of the water depends on its locality. Water flowing down the Darling or the Burdekin is a very different product to that flowing into Sydney's dams.