During the 1950s and 1960s, Australia built reservoirs that were supposed to protect against droughts lasting several years. These gave the country the highest storage capacity per person in the world. Together with hundreds of miles of irrigation conduits, Australia was said, at the time, to be "drought-proof." Searing heat and pervasive drought after the year 2000 changed that. Melbourne's water storage was 28 percent of its capacity by mid-2007; Sydney's was 37 percent, and Perth's was 15 percent. In May, brief, heavy rains hit the Hunter Valley north of Sydney but did little to help. The land was so dry that the torrential rains vanished (Nowak, 2007, 10).
Human-induced global warming was a key factor in the severity of the drought in Australia, the worst in the country's history, according to a report by World Wildlife Fund Australia (WWFA). The report, titled Global Warming Contributes to Australia's Worst Drought, by David Karoly, James Risbey, and Anna Reynolds associated the drought's intensity of the present drought with increasing temperatures. By early 2003, 71 percent
Australia was in serious or severe drought. In some areas, the drought was pervasive—97 percent of New South Wales was drought-stricken, according to the report (Macken, 2003, 61). The drought continued until at least 2007 (as this book was being written). The city of Brisbane was even considering recycling its sewage water, and the possibility that irrigation might be sharply cut in some of the country's most fertile farming areas was increasing, as city residents in Sydney rationed water.
As southeast Australia experienced its worst drought in a century, hundreds of kangaroos headed towards the capital city, Canberra, appearing on golf courses and sports fields in search of grass to eat. Hundreds of them were shot to death "by professional gunmen as growing numbers [of people] perceived [the kangaroos as] a threat to the capital's 320,000-strong population" (Why We're All, 2004).
During the summers of2002 and 2003, wildfires pushed by raging hot, dry winds from Australia's interior seared parts of Canberra, destroying hundreds of homes, killing four people, and forcing thousands to flee the area. "I have seen a lot of bush fire scenes in Australia.. .but this is by far the worst," Australia's prime minister, John Howard, said (Australia Assesses, 2003, A-4). Flames spread through undergrowth and exploded as they hit oil-filled eucalyptus trees. During 2002 and 2003, drought knocked 1 percent off Australia's gross domestic product and cost $6.8 billion in exports. It reduced the size of Australia's cattle herds by 5 percent and its sheep flocks by 10 percent (Macken, 2004, 61). Economic damage continued in the following years.
Perth's first desalination plant was completed in 2006, with a wind farm meant to provide the 24 megawatts required to operate it. Perth now draws 17 percent of its water from that plant. Sydney and Melbourne are now building desalination plants. Some industries, such as BHP Billiton's copper and uranium mines in the South, may also build their own plants. The plants use a great deal of energy and leave behind a salty mush that will harm whatever land or water is used for disposal. Brisbane's government is talking of recycling sewage after its main water supply runs dry, probably in 2009 (Nowak, 2007, 11).
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