National Geographic : 2009 Apr
• In the Riverland district of South Australia, a 48-year-old man drives through his citrus orchard on a bulldozer, mowing down 800 of his Valencia and navel orange trees. e man knows what he is doing. Something must give. For decades the mighty Murray River transformed this land into a lush patchwork of olive, citrus, apricot, and avocado orchards. But now the water bureaucrats have announced that South Australians may use only 16 percent of their annual allocation. And so Mick Punturiero, a third-generation farmer of Italian descent, has made a hard choice: He elects to sacri ce his orange trees and reserve what water he has for his prized lime orchard. Underneath the roar- ing of the engine, Punturiero hears the cracking of muscular trunks he has nurtured for 20 years. And what roils inside him is something darker than sorrow. A few weeks later two state o cials come to Punturiero s village of Cooltong, just outside Renmark, a few hours drive from Adelaide. They have an announcement to make. The catchment levels at Hume Dam have been revised, and it s good news: e water allocation has been doubled, to 32 percent! e farmers in attendance are not overjoyed. Truthfully, with the drought bearing down on them, 32 percent of what they need is not enough to save their orchards. All Punturiero can think is, I could have kept my orange trees. Two months later, Punturiero is still possessed of operatic rage as he pours a guest some home- made lime juice and drops his meaty frame into a chair. Why has it taken them so long to rec- ognize this water crisis? he demands. "Let s go to THEIR house! Tell them which child THEY have to sacrifice to save their whole family! Let s put THEIR family in a pile!" He takes a deep breath. "I get very upset talk- ing about this issue," he says. "I get very, very, VERY agitated over it. End of the day, what s been done is criminal." As to the actual crime and its perpetrators, Mick Punturiero ails with theories. Mostly he blames government o cials who encouraged agricultural development beyond sustainable levels. Even in his more century, it has been mechanized by an armada of weirs, locks, and barrages, so that the ows will be of maximum bene t to the farmers who depend on irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin. As a result, says former commonwealth water minister Malcolm Turnbull, "we ve got an unnatural environment in the river. Because it s regulated, the river now runs high when nature would run it low, and low when nature would run it high." That manipulation had unintended consequences. Irrigation caused salinity levels to skyrocket, which in turn poi- soned wetlands and rendered large stretches of acreage un t for cultivation. Such was the rickety state of Australia s water supply even before the drought fell on it like a mallet, delivering a psychic blow for which the plucky land down under was not prepared. e crisis has pitted one state against another, big cities against rural areas, environmental managers against irrigators, and small farms against government-backed superfarms in a high-stakes competition for a shrinking com- modity. Well beyond the national breadbas- ket of the Murray-Darling Basin, every major urban area has faced the clampdown of water restrictions and the subsequent browning of its revered English gardens and cricket ovals. e trauma is particularly acute in rural bastions of self-reliance, like the New South Wales dairy community inhabited by Malcolm Adlington, which are fast becoming ghost towns. Whole crops have been wiped out by heat stress and low moisture, while entire growing sectors--- rice, cotton, citrus---face collapse. e once quintessential Australian swagger has now come to resemble, in the wake of the water crisis, what Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously termed the "stages of grief ": denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. In what is shaping up to be a cau- tionary tale for other developed nations, the world s 15th biggest economy is learning hard lessons about the limits of natural resources in an era of climate change. e upside is that Australians may be the ones to teach those les- sons to the rest of the industrialized world. THE DROUGHT FELL ON AUSTRALIA LIKE A MALLET, DELIVERING A PSYCHIC BLOW FOR WHICH THE PLUCKY LAND DOWN UNDER WAS NOT PREPARED.