Climate change has parched Aussie farmers looking north

When the heavens open over the savanna flood plains and billabongs of northern Australia, it seems like it will rain forever. Great black storms march across the landscape, drenching the cattle ranches, national parks, and Aboriginal reserves which make up Australia's "Top End."

Thousands of miles to the south, however, in the most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria, the fields are parched, livestock are dying, and farmers face ruin as the worst drought in a century grinds on.

Two-thirds of Australia's freshwater flows down the great tropical rivers of the north, compared with less than five percent in the depleted waterways of the south.

It is hardly surprising, then, that a government task force this week will begin studying the prospects of encouraging Australia's farmers to bow to the harsh realities of drought and climate change, and head north. Critics, however, warn that the north's own climate peculiarities, lack of infrastructure, and indigenous land claims could make industrial-scale farming a risky venture.

"Northern Australia is one of the last agricultural frontiers left on the planet," says Bill Heffernan, a government senator who is presiding over the task force's $15.7 million budget. "Because of the way Australia was settled, it really hasn't been tapped."

Many older farmers will be reluctant to leave land their families have worked for generations, concedes Senator Heffernan, who has the ear of Prime Minister John Howard.

"But I'm talking about the young blokes, the guys in their 30s. I've got dairy farmers down in [the state of] Victoria ringing me up and saying: 'when can we go?' They're ready to move. It's a case of 'go north, young man.' "

Suffused with the pioneering spirit of the 19th century, this grand vision is backed by towns across the undeveloped north, a great belt of tropical savanna renowned for its lingering frontier feel, crocodile-choked swamps, and plain-talking locals.

"Someone needs to make a hard decision and say, 'Let's move the people to where the water is,' " John Wharton, an outspoken mayor from northern Queensland, said last month.

"One of the things [the government] should do is stop development in dry areas and say, 'you can't build here for the next five to 10 years.' "

Many farmers in the southern states of Victoria, South Australia, and New South Wales are battling their seventh consecutive year of drought. The mighty Murray and Darling rivers on which they have relied for decades are exhausted, dwindling to weed-tangled streams.

It's no wonder farmers are turning their eyes to the north, hatching dreams of opening up northern Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory to cotton, rice, and citrus fruits.

Proponents of the shift say the region's proximity to Asia – Darwin is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney or Melbourne – make it profitable to grow specialty vegetables, such as bok choi, for burgeoning Asian markets.

Scientists predict a 15 percent decline in rainfall in the south in coming decades as a result of climate change. The north, in contrast, is likely to get wetter – it appears that industrial pollution from Southeast Asia is intensifying the monsoon season, and increasing rainfall over the region.

But history carries some sober warnings for farmers who think northern Australia is an agricultural El Dorado just waiting to be exploited.

Just east of the curiously named town of Humpty Doo, in the Northern Territory, is a vast lagoon, where fish eagles swoop above the paperbark trees and storks pick their way among lily pads.

It is a bird-watcher's paradise, but it started out in the 1950s as an ambitious agricultural enterprise known as the Humpty Doo Rice Project. Despite rich soils and plentiful water, it was a disaster. Magpie geese ate the rice seed, feral buffalo bulldozed the paddies and seasonal rains proved erratic. Within a decade, it was abandoned.

"The idea of the north as a potential food bowl for Asia is largely a mirage," says Stuart Blanch, a tropical rivers expert with Australia's division of the World Wide Fund for Nature, a global conservation network.

"Although we get a lot of rainfall, it's erratic – we never know when the monsoon will start. Even during the wet season, it may rain heavily for a week, then we get nothing for two weeks."

Much of the soil across the north is of poor quality and the region is a long way away from its main market – the populated southeast Australia – making transportation of agricultural produce expensive. Industrial-scale agriculture is also likely to clash with the land claims of Aborigines, who live in isolated communities scattered across the north.

Rather than pursuing intensive farming, environmentalists say it would be better to preserve the region's great savanna woodlands in order to lock up vast amounts of carbon and contribute to Australia's efforts to lower its carbon dioxide emissions.

But beyond practical concerns, the far north of Australia's proximity to Indonesia and East Timor, its cloying humidity, and its multicultural mix of whites, Aborigines, and Asians makes it feel almost like a different country.

And for their part, locals are tired of having grandiose projects foisted on them by lawmakers in faraway Canberra, the nation's capital.

"We've got a lack of people, a lack of infrastructure, a lack of everything. It would be extremely difficult for a dairy farmer from Victoria to come up here," says Jemma Walshe, an executive officer with the Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Savannas Management at Charles Darwin University. "The monsoonal cycle of dry and wet seasons requires totally different land management techniques," she says.

"The general feeling up here is that southerners don't have a clue what they'd be letting themselves in for."

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