Australia struggles with record drought

The world's third - l argest wheat producer will harvest its worst crop in more than a decade.

Published December 10, 2006

CANBERRA, Australia - Grain farmer Eddie Valks hosted his daughter's wedding on his 2,000-acre spread northwest of Sydney, complete with bride and groom sailing off on a small lake.

Four years later the lake is gone, dried out by Australia's worst drought on record.

"If the wedding guests from the cities saw the place now, they'd be shocked," said the 61-year-old Valks.

Drought and flood have been a familiar feature of Australia's vast cattle and sheep ranches and shimmering grain fields ever since the first Europeans settled here more than 200 years ago.

But this "big dry" is the worst and widest, officials say, and poses a massive economic challenge. It could bring lasting changes to the Earth's driest inhabited continent and sharpen a debate about whether drought-hit farmers should simply leave the Outback for rainier parts of the country.

It is also putting pressure on Prime Minister John Howard from those who link the drought to global warming. These critics condemn his center-right coalition for joining the United States in refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Several cities and regions from the west to the east coast are experiencing their driest year on record. Reservoirs were already low at the outset of 2006 with some areas enduring below-average rainfall for the past decade.

David Dreverman, a leading water conservation scientist, says such a drought comes once in 1,000 years.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, a government commodities researcher, predicts harvests of wheat barley, barley and canola will cut the nation's grain earnings by $4.7-billion, or 35 percent, this fiscal year, which began on July 1.

Australia is usually the world's largest wheat exporter after the United States and Canada, but a lack of winter rain across the southeast means only 10.5-million tons of wheat will be harvested, the smallest crop in more than a decade.

Sen. Bill Heffernan, a government legislator, has said the long-term answer is for farmers to move to the rain-drenched north.