Australia faces food crisis as rivers reach new low

The drought in Australia's main food bowl, the Murray-Darling Basin, has worsened, with record low inflows into the river system in June and an even gloomier situation predicted for the coming months.

Neil Plummer, acting head of the National Climate Centre, described rainfall during the southern hemisphere autumn as "an absolute shocker", and said: "I'm gasping for good news". Wendy Craik, chief executive of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, said the river system's condition was "critical... tending towards flatlining". She added: "We have got it on life support."

The basin, which straddles four states and is the size of France and Germany combined, produces 41 per cent of Australia's fruit, vegetables and grain. Agricultural products worth more than £10bn are exported from the region annually to Asia and the Middle East.

But flows of water last month into the two mighty rivers that irrigate the basin were the lowest since records began 117 years ago, equating to only 16 per cent of the June average. During February to June, the levels were only marginally higher than last year, which was the driest autumn on record.

The dire assessment of the rivers' health came only a few days after government scientists warned that Australia – the world's driest populated continent – could expect the frequency of heatwaves to increase tenfold, from once every 22 years to every one or two years. They also predicted that droughts would occur twice as often and affect twice the usual area. The findings were described by the Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, as reading "more like a disaster novel than a scientific report".

The state of the Murray-Darling is of great concern to two groups: farmers and environmentalists. The former depend on it to irrigate crops such as rice, grapes and horticulture. The latter point to scientific reports saying the river system's unique ecology could be irreversibly damaged by October without heavy rain.

Salvation seems unlikely. Dr Craik said yesterday that hopes of drought-breaking winter rains had faded, and low inflows were expected for the rest of the year. Temperatures are forecast to be above average for the next three months, which means rain is more likely to soak into the sun-baked earth or evaporate than flow into the rivers.

Mr Plummer said good rains early in the year had barely dented the drought, and long-term trends pointed to six to seven years of below average rain in each decade. Of recent months, he said: "Autumn can only be described as an absolute shocker in terms of climate conditions for the basin."

Scientists say the lower reaches of the Murray, where lakes and vast wetlands meet the sea, are almost "beyond recovery", with wetlands dried up, vegetation lost, some native fish species wiped out and others facing extinction. The lakes are becoming acidic, and wildlife habitats are under threat.

Dr Craik raised the pros-pect that communities dependent on the Murray's tributaries might have to have water trucked in. "Regrettably, the drought is getting worse," she said.

Australia's most punishing drought in a century has forced about 10,000 farming families off the land, and threatened the economic viability of some agricultural towns. Ross Garnaut, the government's chief climate change adviser, warned in a report last week that irrigated agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin would decline by 92 per cent by 2100.

The drought, which began six or seven years ago, and has been particularly crippling over the past 12 months and has wiped more than $20bn (£9.3m ) off the economy since 2002.

Even if rainfall returns to average levels, the basin area – the source of 70 per cent of Australia's irrigated agriculture – will continue to suffer because of higher temperatures. Meteorologists have established that for every one degree Celsius rise in temperature, inflows into the river system decrease by 15 per cent.

"The catchments are very dry," said Dr Craik. "And the outlook, unfortunately, for rain is drier than average. Put all that together, and you don't have a very encouraging scenario."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth Games
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
film
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
Extras
indybestSpice up your knife with our selection of delicious toppings
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Horticulture Lecturer / Tutor / Assessor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: As a result of our successf...

Retail Lecturer / Assessor / Tutor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Business Studies Tutor / Assessor / Lecturer - Tollerton

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

ERP Business/ Implementation Analyst

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This is an e...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried