Climate change hits hard in the Australian outback

The once mighty Darling River, Australia's longest waterway, is dwindling by the day beneath a blazing blue sky, its sluggish waters an unhealthy shade of pea-green.

The Darling is the lifeblood of Bourke, one of Australia's most celebrated outback towns. Located in the parched west of New South Wales state, the expression "back o' Bourke" is understood by all Australians to mean in the middle of nowhere. But the town's legendary resilience has been pushed to a breaking point by six years of drought, the worst "big dry" since the British settlement of Australia in 1788.

Desperate graziers have taken to rounding up the flocks of feral goats which inhabit the scrub. Until recently dismissed as pests, they are now the only thing left to sell. The mental stress is enormous – a national mental health organization, Beyond Blue, has claimed an Australian farmer commits suicide once every four days.

The drought has prompted an intense debate in Australia about the effects of global warming and whether some areas are becoming too dry for farming. But the government, which like the US has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, insists there is no proven connection between climate change and drought.

Unless the drought breaks soon, Bourke will become "an economic and social disaster," according to a recent report published by Charles Sturt University in New South Wales.

Australia was ranked 47th out of 56 nations for its lack of willingness to deal with climate change in a study published last week by a German environmental group, Germanwatch. The US, meanwhile, ranked 53rd.

The drought is taking a heavy toll on towns across the outback, but its effect on Bourke, 485 miles north-west of Sydney, is particularly acute.

"Bourke is on the brink," concluded the report. Unlike other towns in the bush, Bourke has no mining to fall back on. Its reliance on irrigation for vast cotton fields and citrus fruit plantations also makes it vulnerable to lack of rain.

There has been no cotton crop for three years due to lack of water, and orange and tangerine orchards are withering.

The town's Aborigines have been particularly hard hit because they rely heavily on the seasonal jobs provided by agriculture.

"It's had a major impact," said Alister Ferguson, Bourke's most senior Aboriginal representative. "Families have a lot less money to spend on food and their kids."

Even the local wildlife seems exhausted. Kangaroos lie panting on a lawn in front of an office building on the outskirts of town, and a pair of emus barely manage to break into a run when startled by the side of the road.

Farmers are selling their properties, and those that remain on the land are struggling to survive financially.

Without sufficient grazing, they have had to either sell all their sheep and cattle or buy in feed at great expense. Sixty sheep and cattle ranches in the Shire of Bourke – an area about the size of Denmark – now have no animals left at all.

Graham Brown, 58, who owns a 430,000 acre farm 190 miles west of Bourke, says it is the harshest drought he has experienced.

"Our dams [reservoirs] are depleted and we're running out of water. We're holding on by the skin of our teeth, but if we don't get any rain this summer, we'll be hitting the panic button," he said.

Bourke's population has dropped in the past three years from 3,500 to less than 3,000. Shops on the main street are boarded up and houses are for sale.

"This is the worst drought white men have seen," said mayor Wayne O'Mally. "It's really testing people's resources."

Scientists disagree with those government officials who see no connection between the drought and global climate change.

"It's still not certain whether the low rainfall is a result of global warming, but certainly the increased temperatures are directly linked," said David Jones, head of climate analysis at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. "Global warming is making Australia hotter, which makes droughts more likely."

Water ecologist Peter Cullen, a board member of the National Water Commission, agreed that evidence points to the fact that Australia is getting drier as a result of global warming.

"I think there is a climate shift occurring with a drought on top of that," Professor Cullen said.

According to a poll this month, 62 per cent of the Australian public believes the government is not doing enough to address global warming.

In an apparent U-turn last week, Conservative Prime Minister John Howard said he would set up a panel to investigate the merits of a global carbon-trading scheme to reduce greenhouse gases. He had previously been profoundly skeptical of the idea.

Australia has called for a "new Kyoto," a revised framework that would include China and India in the campaign to cut greenhouse gas emissions – a call it repeated at last week's United Nations climate change conference in Nairobi and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, over the weekend.

As an alternative to Kyoto, Australia is promoting an Asia-Pacific initiative known as AP6, which draws together the US, China, India, Japan, and South Korea in an effort to develop technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But AP6 has been criticized as a paper tiger because it includes no targets or incentives for reducing emissions, no timetable to phase in cleaner energy technology, and no penalties for businesses that fail to do so.

The government has also been condemned for its strong support of the Australian coal industry, a prime source of greenhouse gases.

While the debate over Canberra's commitment to the fight against global warming intensifies, the people of the outback can only look to the skies and pray for a change in the hot, dry weather.

"If we don't get rain by December or January, God help us. I shudder to think what it will be like," said Sue Smith, a town councillor.

With cloudless blue skies and no significant rain forecast, some communities are turning to prayer.

About 200 Bourke locals gathered recently on an old timber wharf overlooking the Darling River in a mass prayer for rain.

The small crowd listened to sermons and sang hymns such as 'Great South Land' – "This is our nation, this is our land, this lucky country of dreams gone dry."

A prayer called for "life giving rain" to "come and soften our parched land."

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