I have been editing articles on personal experiences of drought for our Australian Beef Association Yearbook. They are written by long time pastoralists and specialists in fodder, water or planning.
Sir Graham McCamley writes –‘you need three things to handle drought - feed, water and cash’.
Cash can be created by government - they do it for wars or politically expedient projects. Feed is a product of water. Water has failed many producers and towns in this drought – as it did in 1902.
Reading stories of people ‘on the road ’and ‘pushing scrub’, I realise how little of our potential we have tapped in 225 years.
Irrigation has been the technology underlying many of the world's greatest civilisations. We fall far short of the levels of government engineering practised in Egypt, Iraq and China 4000 years ago. On our track record, Australia will never make a great civilisation.
A century ago, Henry Lawson wrote of his irrigation vision in “The Storm that is to Come”.
Sixty years ago Idriess wrote ‘The Great Boomerang’ about Dr Bradfield’s plan to turn some of the North Queensland river surplus inland. Nine years ago, Ernie Bridges, the remarkable West Australian, wrote his plan to drought proof Australia. Bridges shows that Australia is not short of water, but it is in the wrong places, at the wrong time. Less than 10 per cent of the combined safe annual yield from the huge monsoonal river systems along Australia's northern coasts is utilised.
The Ord Scheme is our closest agricultural centre to Asia. Its full potential is still to be unlocked. Meanwhile, to the south, crops have failed and huge numbers of sheep and cattle have starved, or died.
There are huge water projects under way in China and Egypt’s Western Desert. The much vilified Libya has drought-proofed large areas with a $12 billion project, drawing water from deep under the Sahara Desert (estimated 10 per cent of the world's fresh water reserves) to service coastal cities and irrigation. Underground water makes up 25 per cent of the world’s freshwater—it doesn’t evaporate and there is great potential for aquifers.
Surplus is the operative word. So much water flows out to sea in wet times that could be used without harming the biodiversity. Despite the lessons of history and travel, our politically dominant urban population see irrigation as environmentally incorrect. They are hypocrites – in the USA there are 50,000 square miles of lawn (the equivalent of the whole of Victoria). It costs an estimated $30 billion a year to maintain the golf courses. Sydney is an even larger per capita user of water.
The NFF is part of a working party on long term requirements for Australian water, but we need action. We need a statesman like Sir William McKell, or we will still be talking about it in 3002.
- John Carter