- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

SYDNEY, Australia

The combination of Australia’s worst-ever wildfires at a time when the nation is suffering its worst drought on record has fueled an intense debate on the effects of climate change in this vast and sparsely populated continent.

Officials say that at least some of the fires, which have killed more than 200 people, were the result of arson. But the fires were made worse by a decade-long dry spell, which has outstripped previous droughts going back at least a century.

Far from being a temporary lack of rainfall, it is a phenomenon that has observers worried that Australia might be witnessing a permanent altering of its environment, with the Murray-Darling Basin - a river system in the southeast that drains one-seventh of Australia’s land mass - being particularly hard hit.

“While rainfall might be about the same as during the previous two droughts, the inflows into the river system are much lower, and a fair bit of the cause of that is linked to global warming,” said Wendy Craik, chief executive for the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

The commission has existed in some form or another for most of the past hundred years.

“There has been quite a shift in autumn rainfall,” Ms. Craik said. “Before, it would wet the catchment, and when it rained in winter, we would get runoff into the system. Now, when you do get rain, it just sucks into a very dry catchment and you don’t get the runoff.”

As an inter-jurisdictional venture between four states, the region of Australia’s capital, Canberra, and the federal government, figures collected by the commission in recent years have proved especially alarming.

Helping to water such states such as Victoria, the site of the wildfires, as well as New South Wales and Queensland, the Murray-Darling Basin was once wet enough to irrigate crops that produced 1.2 million metric tons of rice. Last year, the rice harvest fell to 18,000 metric tons.

Once fertile scrubland has become cracked and arid desert.

Commission figures show that the region had record low inflows of water between 2006 and 2008, with the inflows for 2006-2007 less than 60 percent of the previous minimum - a figure based on 117 years of records.

Whereas the normal inflows have measured about 10,000 gigaliters a year, from 2006 until 2007 the amount was just 1,000 gigaliters. From 2007 until 2008 it improved marginally to a still-meager 3,000 gigaliters.

Last year, the state of South Australia, the country’s driest, was forced to purchase water from other states for the first time in its history to ensure that it would have enough water to meets its basic needs.

Late last year, the federal government announced it was assuming full control of the commission for the first time in the body’s history.

Beyond the crop-growing regions of southern Australia, the effects of the drought have been felt as far north as the coastal city of Brisbane, hundreds of miles away, with residents forbidden from watering lawns, washing cars or using water for many other activities without a government permit.

“Extended periods of lack of rainfall have occurred in the past, but the difference we are seeing with this drought is that the impacts on hydrology seem to be much more severe than what we experienced before,” said Ian Smith, coordinator of the South East Australia Climate Initiative with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency.

“The temperatures are warmer and that has exacerbated the effect on runoff into dams and rivers,” Mr. Smith said. “The [low] inflows into the system are unprecedented, and that’s the thing that we’re worried about.”

In southern Australia there has been an intensification of the phenomenon known as the subtropical ridge, a swath of high pressure characterized by a reduction in the amount of rainfall in autumn and late winter. The expansion of the ridge has been closely linked by many scientists to global warming.

The debate about the drought also has a political dimension.

A 2007 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that by 2030, “water security problems are projected to intensify in southern and eastern Australia.” The report recommended a worldwide reduction in carbon emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Australian environmentalists were subsequently outraged when the Labor Party government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) that included a far more modest cut of 5 percent to 15 percent by 2020.

Cuts beyond that level were tied to government demands for a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as exemptions for energy-intensive industries in a broad carbon trading arrangement. Compensation for electricity producers and users was also an attached condition

By contrast, the European Union recently adopted a goal of a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020.

A December Australian government white paper struck a cautious tone on the issue of climate change, saying that the country’s most emissions-intensive industries would be given “assistance in as practical and effective a fashion as possible,” but that the government would “explicitly support” the continued growth of such industries.

Subsequent research by Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, an investment advisory firm, estimated that in the first year of the CPRS, $939 million of aid would go to the aluminum smelting industry, $297 million to petroleum refiners, $261 million to steel makers, $182 million to natural gas producers and $157 million to cement makers.

Companies such as Rio Tinto, Alcoa and Woodside stand to profit in the hundreds of millions of dollars from the system, the investment firm says.

With a relatively small population of slightly more than 20 million for a land mass nearly as large as the United States, Australia has the highest per capita greenhouse emission rates in the 30-member Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), chiefly due to the country’s intensive use of coal.

Australia emits 28.1 tons of carbon per person into the atmosphere, five times greater than the per person total for China.

Many Australians fear that their country may be heading toward a largely rainless future.

“There is massive stress, uncertainly and fear,” said Mike Young, executive director of the Water Economics and Management program at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute in South Australia. “There is a difference between a drought and what we’re experiencing, which looks like a shift to a drier regime.”

“We’re in uncharted policy territory, and we’re dealing with things with which we’ve had no previous experience,” he said.

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