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Editorial: Australia – not such a lucky country
16 June 2007
From New Scientist Print Edition.
Tim Flannery

Over the past 50 years southern Australia has lost about 20 per cent of its rainfall, and one cause is almost certainly global warming. Similar losses have been experienced in eastern Australia, and although the science is less certain it is probable that global warming is behind these losses too. But by far the most dangerous trend is the decline in the flow of Australian rivers: it has fallen by around 70 per cent in recent decades, so dams no longer fill even when it does rain. Growing evidence suggests that hotter soils, caused directly by global warming, have increased evaporation and transpiration and that the change is permanent. I believe the first thing Australians need to do is to stop worrying about "the drought" - which is transient - and start talking about the new climate.

While the populated east and south of Australia have parched, rainfall has increased in the north-west. This has prompted some politicians to call for development of the north, including massive schemes for dams and pipelines. Some have even called for a large-scale shift of population to follow the rain. Yet computer models indicate that the increased rainfall is most likely caused by the Asian haze, which has pushed the monsoon south. This means that as Asia cleans up its air, Australia is likely to lose its northern rainfall. Australians need to leave behind their dreams of opening a new frontier and focus on making the best of the water remaining to them where they live today.

To achieve this, much has to be done. Industry, power plants, farmers and households pay too little for their water, so they waste it. Water thrift is an absolute prerequisite for life in the new climate. The country also needs to shift to a new energy economy. Australia's coal-fired power plants consume around 2 tonnes of water - for cooling and steam generation - for every megawatt-hour they produce. They also emit much of the CO2 that is the ultimate cause of the drying. Dwindling water supplies are raising the price of electricity, and to avoid an economic and environmental disaster the old coal clunkers need to be closed as quickly as possible and replaced with cleaner, less thirsty means of power generation. These could include geothermal, solar thermal, solar, wind or wave energy, and possibly clean coal.

Australia needs to design and build an irrigation system fit for the 21st century. It is tempting is to try to fix the existing system, but that is hopeless. The country needs to move to highly efficient irrigation and to think laterally about water use. As the climate becomes more variable it may make sense, for example, to plant rice and cotton during the odd wet year, rather than persist with permanent plantings of grape, citrus and so on, which need water year-round.

The cities need drought-proofing by, for example, installing water tanks in all dwellings that can accept them. Because in affected areas the decline in river flow is three times that in rainfall, water tanks that use roofs as catchments are now far more effective than dams for supplying drinking water in cities such as Sydney and Brisbane. Recycling can help too. This needs new investment and in some instances will require state government water monopolies to be broken up. It will cost more, but the benefits in terms of water security and recapture of nutrients in solid wastes are immense.

Desalination plants can provide insurance against drought. In Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane, water supplies are so low they need desalinated water urgently, possibly in as little as 18 months. Of course, these plants should be supplied by zero-carbon power sources.

Last, but by no means least, Australia must ratify the Kyoto protocol and agitate globally for a swift and decisive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Our best theories show that Australia is suffering early and disproportionately from climate change. As one of the two renegade developed nations not to have ratified the treaty (the other is the US), and as the world's worst per capita emitter of CO2, some may say that Australia deserves its fate. If it is to save itself from even more severe climate impacts the country needs to change its ways, and fast.

Tim Flannery is professor of earth and life sciences at Macquarie University, chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council, and the 2007 Australian of the Year

From issue 2608 of New Scientist magazine, 16 June 2007, page 5

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