Rivers dry up Down Under

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Australia's two mighty rivers, the Murray and the Darling, irrigate the nation's food bowl, an area the size of France and Germany combined. But the river system's ecology could be irreversibly damaged before the end of the year because of prolonged drought, a report has cautioned.

The report, by an expert scientific panel, said that the Murray's southern reaches were almost "beyond recovery", with wetlands dried up, vegetation lost and some native fish species wiped out. The two rivers irrigate the Murray-Darling Basin in south-east Australia, which produces 41 per cent of the country's agricultural output. Rice, corn, grapes and dairy products worth US$21bn (£10.1bn) are exported from the region annually to Asia and the Middle East.

But Australia's worst drought for a century has brought flows of water into the Murray and Darling to an all-time low. Environmentalists say that the only way to save the rivers is to cut the amount of water allocated to farmers. But farmers say that this would spell economic ruin for rural communities.

Because the basin straddles four states, it has been the subject of bitter political wrangling among the state governments, and between them and the federal government. The Minister for Climate Change, Penny Wong, received the doomsday report in May. She said last week that she was seeking "urgent advice" on it: "We do need to act urgently, and we have been aware of the problem for some time."

The dire state of the river system is a day-to-day reality for Colin Grundy, a cattle farmer whose property is situated on the lower reaches of the Murray. "I just see death," he told The Australian newspaper. "We've got dead reeds, dead turtles, dead everything."

Mr Grundy has been forced by the drought to reduce his breeding stock of 600 cows to 450, and is planning to cut it back to 250 in the next month. His wife, Sally, said: "Everything has changed. The whole ecology has changed. It should be declared a natural disaster. There have been plenty of warning signs, and no one has taken any action."

Opposition politicians accused the government of sitting on its hands while the river system deteroriated further. Until the report came to light last week, ministers had planned to defer discussion of it until November. Amid the storm of criticism, they said that a meeting could be scheduled for an earlier date.