Catastrophic: environmentally and economically

Catastrophic: environmentally and economically

15 October 2006

published by

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia — Less water, ruined farms, more bushfires. That’s the gloomy forecast if Victoria’s drought continues. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance it will.

It is 10 years to the month since the drought began in southern and eastern Australia. For Victoria, it has been the second-driest 10-year period in history, just behind 1935-45. For the region around Melbourne, it has been the driest-ever such period.

“If it continues on for another five, we wouldn’t be calling it a drought any more. We’d be thinking about a change in climate,” said National Climate Centre meteorologist Robert Fawcett.

As a precedent, Dr Fawcett points to the south-western tip of Western Australia, which has been notably drier since 1970. “The climate shifted to a drier regime and that may well be happening here.”

So where will the impact be felt the most?
Water supplies

The most recent CSIRO/Melbourne Water study predicts that less rainfall will mean Melbourne’s water supplies could be cut by between 4 and 15 per cent by 2020, while demand for water will increase due to the city’s expanding population.

The Government’s plan to deal with this is to reconnect Tarago Reservoir, which was taken offline in 1994 due to poor water quality. A treatment plant will be built to ensure the water is drinkable.

Permanent water restrictions will continue. Other measures that may have to be considered, according to the study, include desalination plants; harvesting stormwater, including storing it in large underground aquifers for non-drinking purposes; and recycling treated effluent for drinking water. There will be an acute need for these measures by 2050, when supplies will be down 10 to 40 per cent compared with today.

The prospect of the drought continuing for another five years is a “frightening thought”, according to Victorian Farmers Federation president Simon Ramsey. “Assuming that we have broad-brush drought right across Australia … it’s going to be catastrophic. It will mean that we have real difficulty in food production … livestock will be decimated.”

Mr Ramsey said Australia would still be able to feed itself, but the current account deficit would suffer, as would Victoria’s financial health. “It’s more the export market than the domestic supply (that will be harmed), given we’re a net exporter. Financially, it’s going to be a disaster as part of the trade deficit.”

As irrigated water dried up in the state’s north, whole farm sectors were at risk, he said. “Most of our dairy is in the north … we won’t have a dairy industry after that.”


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