National Geographic : 2009 Apr
EDITOR'S NOTE PHOTO: AMY TOENSING Samantha (at left) and Natalie Turner sweep sludge from a trough on their family's drought-stricken farm in New South Wales, Australia. The diesel engine clatters to life. My friend Mike is giving me a quick lesson in how to operate his father's bulldozer. Accompanied by a cacophony of metal on metal, I maneuver pedals and levers. I lower the blade and begin knocking down trees. I'm helping build a logging road near Prospect, Oregon. Despite a lack of finesse, I'm making progress and having fun. I'm on top of the world. When I read Robert Draper's "Australia's Dry Run" and look at Amy Toensing's photographs in this month's issue, I'm reminded of that day three decades ago when I was young and didn't understand the potential consequences of bulldozers. A decade ago the farmers of the Murray-Darling Basin were on top of the world. Their machinery had cut 15 billion trees; leveled fields; planted crops; built canals, weirs, and locks to divert water; and turned the basin into Australia's breadbasket. Now the water is gone. A seven-year drought is taking its toll, and battles rage over the dwindling supply. "The last three years we've had essentially no water. That's what's killing us," says Malcolm Adlington, a dairy farmer who has had to sell all his heifers (six years ago he had nearly 500). There is no shortage of claimants for the water---from farmers to conservationists to the city of Adelaide. The bulldozers that reshaped the basin are gone. But questions remain. What caused the drought? Climate change? Is deforestation breaking the natural cycles of rainfall? Slowly, the questions are being answered, with solutions to follow. In the meantime, the world watches and, hopefully, learns.