Australia’s Food Bowl, Like The World’s, Is Drying Up

Circle of Blue Reports reports that Australia's food bowl, like the world's, is drying up.

(emphasis mine) [my comment]

Australia's Food Bowl, Like The World's, Is Drying Up
March 9, 2009
An Industrialized Nation Reckons With A 12-Year Drought In The Murray-Darling Basin


The skeletons of Australia's iconic Red Gum trees haunt the shrinking shores of Lake Pamamaroo near Menindee, New South Wales. Click image to enlarge.
by Keith Schneider
Photographs by J. Carl Ganter
Circle of Blue Reports

...

Central to the Murray-Darling Basin's business strategy lies a manifest agreement with nature common to all of farming, but especially meaningful in deserts. The quid-pro-quo for nations that ask their people to grow food where there's so little moisture is that the rain will come and water will be provided. That agreement is not only broken across the 400,000-square-mile basin, which is larger than France and Germany combined — the question of whether it can be fixed is not at all assured. "Bloody drought," Gread laments. "It's got us good."

When The Rain Stops

Twelve years ago, the rain stopped falling with any consequence in Australia's prime food-growing region, bounded on the south by the Murray River and the west by the Darling. The clash between nature and agriculture in the Murray-Darling raised food prices and was widely followed in the news media by the rest of Australia.

But outside the country's borders, this growing crisis was hardly known until last year, when the basin's one-million-ton rice crop failed. Growers managed to harvest just 18,000 tons. The crop disaster wrecked the economies of Deniliquin and other rice-producing towns in New South Wales, one of the four states encompassed by the Murray-Darling Basin, driving families from their farms and causing suicides at twice the national rate.

Perhaps more significantly, the importance of the Murray-Darling Basin to the planet's food supply emerged for the first time. The Australian rice failure was a factor in driving up prices that prompted global food riots in 34 countries.

THE MURRAY-DARLING AND AGRICULTURE

Above: Slowly flowing from Lake Wetherell, canals of the Darling River cut through the flat, arid countryside near Menindee, New South Wales (click image to enlarge).

This year, as the drought persisted and much of southeast Australia roasted in daytime temperatures that reached nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the world paid more attention. In February, the worst fires in Australia's history raced across the southern boundaries of the basin, killing 210 people.

...

A Warning On Food Scarcity

Perhaps not since the American Dust Bowl of the early 20th century has an industrialized nation sustained more damage from drought in a prime food-growing region than Australia. While it's the first in modern times to be so heavily buffeted by drought, meteorologists insist that more primary food-growing nations will soon collide with similarly catastrophic weather.

One of the top researchers sounding the alarm is Julian Cribb, a journalist and professor of science communications at the University of Technology in Sydney. "It's everything actually coming together at once that makes the situation more serious than people have taken it to be until now," he says in an interview. "And rather much more urgent that it be addressed."

Indeed, says Cribb, 2008 was the eighth in a row that the world's six billion people have consumed more food than was produced by farmers. There was just enough food in storage worldwide to feed the planet for about 55 days, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. That is less than half the supply of the late 1990s, and the lowest food stores in 37 years. The World Bank says 100 million more people are starving.

Harvests of grain, milk, and meat are crashing into new limits of production. The rising cost of fertilizer and the shrinking land base suitable for agriculture are two of the new limits. Another is the world's population, which is projected to climb to 9 billion by mid-century. Fisheries are collapsing, putting more strain on land-based farming. Budgets for agriculture sciences are shrinking.

Yet in the face of these and other limits to production, global demand for food is expected to rise 110 percent over the next 40 years.


Harvesting withered wheat on a former rice paddy, Gilbert Bain reflects on the prospects of the land he works near Deniliquin, New South Wales. "We want to see the Murray flow," he said, "but entitlements are just bits of paper if the water is not there." (Click image to enlarge).

Yet arguably the most important new limit, says Cribb, is the competition for fresh water. For most of the last century, 70 percent of the world's fresh water was used in irrigation. But within a decade or so, cities will command half or more of the world's fresh water. Farmers won't be able to turn to groundwater, because those underground reservoirs are falling in every country in the world where it is used for agriculture.

And on top of all of these trends is global climate change, which is steadily drying the planet's major food-producing regions. "The volume of fresh water available to grow food is now in decline," Cribb says. "And it is quite likely we will have to double farm output using only two-thirds of today's water volume."

The point, says Cribb, is that the world's food growing regions, what he calls "food bowls," are being forced to adjust to startling new and much dryer conditions. "The Murray-Darling Basin is a food bowl," he says. "There are many food bowls like it. The Indus-Ganges food bowl in India. The Yangtze-Yellow River food bowl in China. The Volta-Chad food bowl in Africa. In almost every one of these cases, the rivers are in trouble. The rivers are being emptied, the ground water is being drained, the soils are drying out, the lakes are filling in with sediment. So in almost every one of these major river basins, particularly in the drier areas — that's 25 degrees on either side of the equator — there is a diabolical problem emerging for the world. And we have to learn to manage these basins with much greater efficiency and sensitivity for the environment than we have now, or we are going to be in a lot of trouble."

The collapse of Australia's rice harvest is one case in point. Another is wheat. In the last two years, Australia's wheat growers managed to harvest just over half of the 20 million tons of grain they normally produce. Australia is the world's sixth-largest exporter of wheat.

This year, Argentina, the world's third-largest exporter of corn, is experiencing the worst drought since 1971. The corn harvest is expected to drop 25 percent. Soybean production also has been cut significantly, and the wheat harvest looks like it will be about half its usual size. The price of corn has climbed 50 percent. Soybean prices are up 40 percent.

California agriculture also is in peril. A two-year drought has reduced the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides water to Central Valley farms, by 40 percent according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Food production in the north Indian plain, central Asia, and China also are in peril as the Himalayan glaciers, the primary source of water for the region's major rivers, melt away.
...

THE MURRAY-DARLING BASIN



Map by Terrell Robbins for Circle of Blue

Trouble
...


When the drought started in the late 1990s, there was no indication that it was anything other than a typical interruption in the largely rainy weather pattern that had persisted in the Murray-Darling Basin for the previous 40 years.
The ample moisture had encouraged more farming, and more water use, under a system of permits and licenses and allocations managed by the state governments. There are 24 different kinds of permits and licensing agreements, and each one carries a right to gain a share of the basin's water.

Promising Water That Can't Be Delivered

While complex and often cumbersome, the system worked well in the wet years when the basin gained 23,000 gigaliters of water each year, reservoirs were full, and the government allocated 11,500 gigaliters to farmers and cities. Mightily productive farms and extremely water-intensive farm practices developed that filled stores, but also tested the limits of industrial arrogance. Desert dairy producers flood-irrigated alfalfa. Australia encouraged huge harvests of rice and cotton, which use more water than any other crops. [My guess is that the hay day's of Australian rice farming are over]


The man made reser- voirs near Menindee, once replete with water from the Murray-Darling are drying up (click image to enlarge).

The drought, though, has reduced the water flows in the basin from 23,000 gigaliters to under 14,000 gigaliters, or roughly as much water as authorities have allocated for agriculture and other uses. The result is that the era of profligate water use is done for now, and if climate specialists are right, likely forever. The drought has forced state water authorities to slash allocations to farms to as little as 4 percent of the normal amount in the rice-growing regions [no wonder rice crops failed], not enough to raise a crop, and from 10 percent to 40 percent of normal allocations in other regions. Moreover, say Australian scientists who developed surprisingly accurate computer models, the rain-scarce weather pattern is likely to remain the norm.

[The same thing is happening in California right now: farmers are being told they won't be getting much/any water this year.]

The effect on the landscape is not subtle. The network of manmade lakes south of Shepparton is closer to empty than full. Amber signs flash alerts along the region's roadways, keeping residents abreast of reservoir levels and warning people not to waste. Melbourne and Adelaide, two of the country's largest cities, are running out of water. The basin's ecological health — its birds, fish, mammals, trees and soils — is steadily deteriorating. The arcane deliberations by government authorities who tally water levels and issue formal orders about who gets how much are as closely followed across the four states as the stock market is in America.

In the parlance of water specialists, the Murray-Darling is "over-allocated," which means more water has been promised to farmers and cities than the system produces. The problem for Australia, and by extension the world, is to chart a new course that assures the supply of water is adequate to meet competing demands — including sustaining natural systems — and still produce enough food. Solving that challenge represents one of the biggest tests of Australia's competency and capacity to change in its history.

...

At a glance

The vast farming region, bounded on the south by the Murray River, and on the west by its sister, the Darling, is one of the most vital sources of fruits, grains and protein on the planet.

The Murray-Darling Basin encompasses 14 percent of Australia's land mass and generates
39 percent of the national farm income.

The Basin produces
53 percent of Australia's cereal grain, 95 percent of its orange crop and 54 percent of its apple harvest.

Australia's rice is grown exclusively in the Basin, and drought in the Murray-Darling Basin contributed to the global rice shortage of 2008.

— Seventy percent of Australia's irrigated farmlands and pastures lie within the Basin, but it receives only 6 percent of Australia's annual rainfall.

The Murray-Darling Basin is experiencing a 12-year drought, the worst since the Federation Drought that ended in 1902.

— The Basin is highly regulated using a system of dams, weirs and locks to control flow rates.

The Murray River is so water-starved that it fails to reach the ocean
40 percent of the time.

— Australia's Bureau of Meteorology predicts that within two to three decades, drought will occur twice as often and be twice as severe throughout the continent.

Drought conditions in 2007 and 2008 brought Australia's national sheep herd to its lowest numbers since the 1920s.

— In 2007 the World Wildlife Fund named the Murray-Darling one of the "world's top ten rivers at risk."

My reaction: Considering Australia's drought is the longest running and most severe on the planet, I decided it was about time to devote a full entry to the topic.

1) Twelve years ago, the rain stopped falling with any consequence in Australia's prime food-growing region, bounded on the south by the Murray River and the west by the Darling.

2) last year, when the Murray-Darling Basin's one-million-ton rice crop failed

3) In February, the worst fires in Australia's history raced across the southern boundaries of the basin, killing 210 people. (See the
fires and floods which devastated Australia last month.)

4) While Australia's "food bowl" the first in modern times to be so heavily buffeted by drought, meteorologists insist that more primary food-growing nations will soon collide with similarly catastrophic weather.

"It's everything actually coming together at once that makes the situation more serious than people have taken it to be until now, and rather much more urgent that it be addressed."
--Julian Cribb

5) 2008 was the eighth in a row that the world's six billion people have consumed more food than was produced by farmers.

6) The world has enough food in storage to feed the planet for about 55 days, which is the lowest food stores in 37 years

7) Fisheries are collapsing, putting more strain on land-based farming.

8) Global demand for food is expected to rise 110 percent over the next 40 years.

9) Food production in the north Indian plain, central Asia, and China also are in peril as the Himalayan glaciers, the primary source of water for the region's major rivers, melt away.

Conclusion: Food prices will not stay down.

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3 Responses to Australia’s Food Bowl, Like The World’s, Is Drying Up

  1. Steve says:

    what ever happened to the "Ord river scheme" for its crop production

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  3. Ian+Anne says:

    what ever happened to the "Ord river scheme" for its crop production

    It took 20 years or more to find crops that could be 'profitably' grown there - it is incredibly hot, harsh, and prone to insect and other attack. It is a long way from markets (both domestic and export).

    There are some successful high-value crops there now (strawberries, melons, broccoli, etc), but no basic cereals and other heavy produce that you cannot transport long distances at a profit.

    I think the whole scheme is under-written by subsidy and other government funding. And Ord Stage 2 has been proposed - and unbelievably, they are (or were) considering sugar - at a time when the Queensland sugar farmers can't make any money.

    The Ord River Scheme is not our saviour - in fact century-old dreams of harvesting all that water and sunshine in the northern half of the country remain just that - dreams. It is too hot, too far, with poor soils, and it has no rain for eight months, then monsoons for four.

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