National Geographic : 2009 Apr
severity of natural disasters like this drought (see "Outlook: Extreme," page 60). What seems indisputable is that, as Australian environ- mental scientist Tim Kelly puts it, "we ve got a three-quarters of a degree [Celsius] increase in temperature over the past 15 years, and that s driving a lot more evaporation from our water. at s climate change." It has taken a while for Australia to wake up to that reality. A er all, the country was trans- formed by rough-country optimists unfazed by living on one of the least fertile landscapes on Earth. Australian scientist Tim Flannery calls it a "low-nutrient ecosystem," one whose soil has become old and infertile because it hasn t been stirred up by glaciers within the past mil- lion years. e Europeans who descended on the slopes of the Murray-Darling Basin---a vast semiarid plain about the size of Spain and France combined---were lulled by a string of mid-19th- century wet years into thinking they had discov- ered a latter-day Garden of Eden. Following the habits of their homelands, the settlers felled some 15 billion trees. Unaware of what it would mean to disrupt an established water cycle by uproot- ing vegetation well adapted to arid conditions, the new Australians introduced sheep, cattle, and water-hungry crops altogether foreign to a des- ert ecosystem. e endless plowing to encourage Australia s new bounty further degraded its soil. And so a river became the region s lifeline. Like America s Mississippi River, the 1,600-mile Murray carries mythological signi cance, sym- bolizing endless possibility. Its network of billa- bongs, river red gums, Murray cod, and black swans are as a xed to the Australian ethos as the outback. From its headwaters in the Australian Alps to its destination at the Indian Ocean, the slender river meanders along a northwestern course, fed by the currents of the Murrumbidgee and Darling Rivers as it cuts a long borderline between New South Wales and Victoria before entering the semiarid brush country of South Australia and plunging toward the ocean at Encounter Bay. at its journey appears unhur- ried, even whimsical, adds to the river s legend. Progress, for Australians, has involved bend- ing the Murray River to their will. Over the past alone in his truck going nowhere---watching his herd dwindle, his meadows receding into desert scrubland. All he can do is watch. The world s most arid inhabited continent is perilously low on water. Beyond that simple fact, nothing about Australia s water crisis is straightforward. ough Australians have routinely weathered dry spells, the current seven-year drought is the most dev- astating in the country s 117 years of recorded history. e rain, when it does fall, seems to have a spiteful mind of its own---snubbing the farm- lands during winter crop-sowing season, ood- ing the towns of Queensland, and then spilling out to sea. To many, the erratic precipitation patterns bear the ominous imprint of a human- induced climate shi . Global warming is widely believed to have increased the frequency and Flooded by Hume Dam in the 1920s, the Murray's riverbanks were once thick with river red gum trees that captured moisture and helped drive cycles of rainfall. The skeletons of submerged trees are now visible in a ponded portion of the river's upper reaches, exposed by the lowest water levels in decades. Robert Draper is a contributing writer for National Geographic. Amy Toensing s photographs of Tonga appeared in the November 2007 issue.