Australia's greatest river runs dry as drought takes hold

A A A

Australia's greatest river is running dry because of a prolonged drought that has exacerbated the problems caused by farmers taking too much water to irrigate unsuitable crops.

Scientists fear that years of below-average rainfall in south-east Australia is turning the once mighty Murray river - known as the Australian Mississippi - from a gushing torrent to a trickling stream.

A build-up of sand and salt is the biggest problem generated by low rainfall that has dramatically changed the nature of the river over the past couple of decades.

"When we first came down here, we had wetlands in front of us," said Richard Owen, whose old shack overlooks the mouth of the Murray as it runs into the Southern ocean. "Now you can just walk up and across the sand. It's just filled up," Mr Owen said.

For the past three years, dredgers have been operating round the clock to keep the river's mouth from silting up. Even temporary respites in the drought - heavy rains last month and earlier in the year - do not seem to make much of an impact on the problem.

A forecast by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, the organisation set up to manage the waterway, predicts that the total storage capacity of the river system will continue to decline next year, even with average rainfall.

The river is described as a lifeline for the parched region of Australia, feeding water from the tropical north down the Darling river and from the eastern snowfields where the Murray's source lies 1,550 miles from the river's final destination. The basin is also the nation's food bowl, accounting for 41 per cent of the total value of Australia's agricultural sector. That is one of the problems as rice and cotton farmers take huge amounts of water to irrigate crops unsuited to Australia's dry climate.

The Murray-Darling catchment plays a crucial role in supporting Australia's economy and rural life. It covers 1.06 million sq km (0.4m sq miles), or 15 per cent of Australia's landmass, equivalent to an area the size of France and Spain combined.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, until rail transport took over, paddle steamers plied the river, transporting wool, wheat and goods from town to town. Mark Twain once likened the river in the 1880s to the Mississippi.

During that period, farmers used the river water to irrigate crops, turning vast areas of arid lands into lush fields. But so much has been taken out and so many areas stripped of trees that river flows are falling and salinity rising as salt is brought to the surface soil with successive flooding and drought.

In an average year, 13,000 million litres of Murray water flows to the sea. But after four years of drought, outflows are now down to an annual 5,000 million litres - a fraction of the flow of comparable rivers such as the Amazon and Yangtze.

The national and state governments are spending about £200m over the next five years in an attempt to boost the flow and stabilise salinity levels. "Doing nothing is not an option," said Wendy Craik, chief executive of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

Adelaide, the capital of South Australia state, draws 40 per cent of its water from the river. The government says supplies from the Murray could be unfit to drink within 20 years for the city of about one million.

Salinity projects up and down the river are trying to stop 1,000 tons of salt a day from entering the water system under a plan to stabilise salinity levels. But more than a year on, the Murray Darling Basin Commission is still searching for an extra 260 million litres of water to meet its stated target of returning the river to its previous flow.

Another problem is that the Murray is a slow and lazy river. Rainfall in the upper reaches of the Darling can take three months to make it downstream to Goolwa, so it takes a long time for the river to flush out all the impurities.

News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Sport
sport
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all