National Geographic : 2009 Apr
• by "drought-proo ng" Adelaide, which, despite its dependence on the Murray, claims only 6 percent of the total drain on the river. "South Australia s very aware that they re living precari- ously," says Wilderness Society environmental activist Peter Owen. "We re not going to save our river system by standing in buckets." Meanwhile, outside of the Murray-Darling Basin, the drought has exposed serious aws in the water resources of Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, among other urban areas. e hard lesson of Australia s dry run is that the coun- try s jaunty boosterism no longer su ces as the way forward. "I work on the assumption that we re going to see more episodes of this type of drought in the future because of climate change," says Malcolm Turnbull, whose Liberal Party leader John Howard, a longtime climate change skeptic, was turned out of o ce in November 2007. "A prudent minister assumes it s going to get hotter and drier, and plans accordingly." But what does this mean, really? Will it mean the construction of expensive desalina- tion plants in Adelaide, Sydney, and elsewhere, with escalating energy bills? Will it be possible to develop drought-resistant crop varieties to keep food production up? Or to drastically reduce the water needs of dairy farmers who use a thousand gallons of water for each gallon of milk they produce? Will the Murray River s hard labor continue, or will it see mercy? A robust new landscape is required, and it s up to Australia to show the rest of the industrialized world what that new landscape will be. For starters, it may be a landscape that s come to terms with limita- tions. Goyder s Line is even more relevant today, as drought and climate change give new urgency to the question of how intensively marginal agricultural land should be worked---or whether it should be le fallow. A er all, the nal stage of coping with loss is acceptance. Back in 1962 Frank Whelan was the third farmer in his New South Wales district to receive a water allocation to grow rice, six years before the town of Coleambally was incorporated. Until this season he always had a crop. Although he s 74, his memory is as clear as his eyes. sense to divert the Murray all the way inland, o cially consigning the river to eternal servi- tude as an irrigation channel, while shermen buck up and learn to live o the sea. In cotton- growing areas wholly dependent on irrigation, Jones says, "I m lucky to get out with my life." The Coorong represents only one glaring example of the Murray-Darling Basin s imperiled ecosystem. For example, Australian scientists and government o cials were caught unaware when farther upriver some invisible drought- tolerance threshold was crossed and hundreds of thousands of river red gum trees---in the world s biggest such forest---suddenly died. And of late, a fresh concern has emerged: that the wetlands may be brewing toxins. Robbed of their seasonal ushing, and instead unnaturally submerged for decades, the swamps have become so dry that the crusted silt has reacted with air to form large surfaces of sulfuric acid. Scientists haven t fully gauged the threat to animals and people. For now, as University of Adelaide water economist Mike Young observes, "you wouldn t want to put your hand in it." Adelaide may have the dubious distinction of being the world s rst industrialized city to live in a constant state of water shortage. Its unhealthy reliance on the Murray---up to 90 percent of its water supply in low-rainfall periods---is symbolized by two unsightly pipelines that stretch more than 30 miles from the river to the city s water tanks. Since shortly a er the drought s onset in 2002, the South Australia capital has been on water restrictions. Its residents dutifully cart buckets of used shower and washing machine water out- side to their gardens. Native plants and arti - cial lawns are de rigueur. e racks of hardware stores are crammed with soil wetters, gray water diverter hoses, water-restricting shower nozzles, four-minute shower timers, and other tributes to water austerity. e radio "talk-back" shows have become reliable outlets for ranting about this or that water abuser. Still, civic virtue is no substitute for lasting reform. e nation s water crisis won t be solved IT'S UP TO AUSTRALIA TO SHOW THE REST OF THE WORLD WHAT THE NEW LANDSCAPE WILL BE ONE THAT'S COME TO TERMS WITH LIMITATIONS.