Spotlight Activity: Drought Deepens in Australia’s Interior as Spring Bushfires Hit
This July, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology declared the current inland drought the worst on record. The Murray-Darling Basin — an area nearly the size of Texas and California combined — is currently receiving record low levels of rainfall, with below average rain expected for the remainder of 2019. The MDB feeds two of Australia’s most important river systems, provides drinking water for 1 in 8 Australians and is considered Australia’s agricultural food bowl. The highly publicised “fish kills” earlier this year occurred towards the downstream end of the MDB, where chronic government mismanagement, water hoarding by big irrigators and low rainfall combined to reduce river flows to a critical level. Not only are more fish kill events predicted this Australian summer, but now a host of large regional cities in NSW are bracing for their “Day Zero” when rivers and dams in the MDB dry up and their water supply is cut.
Compounding the inland crisis are the worst spring bushfires to ever hit Queensland. Australians have looked on in horror as fire services in the northern state struggle to combat the blazes, which have even burnt through areas of subtropical rainforest. Fires have never hit Queensland so early and with such intensity. Emergency services are scrambling to cover threats for the rest of 2019, with a bad cyclone season also predicted.
Status: Falling Behind
The damage from Queensland’s fires was brought home to many Australians with pictures of the destruction of the historic Binna Burra Lodge — a rainforest eco-resort popular with holidaymakers since the 1930s. Damage from bushfires in Australia is made visceral by the loss of homes and buildings, and along with Binna Burra Lodge 20 Queensland families have lost their homes so far in the 2019 fire season. Queensland’s state government has emphasized the unprecedented nature of the 2019 spring bushfires and directly linked escalating fire seasons to climate change. Former fire & rescue leaders from around the country say the same things when interviewed on television: what they’re seeing is worse than ever, and that scares them.
Although voters in the MDB by-and-large returned their conservative MPs to government in the May federal election, tension and frustration with the government continues to grow (as it did throughout 2018). Anger at water shortages and government incompetence brought out 1,500 protesting farmers in Tocumwal, where an effigy of water minister David Littleproud was thrown into the Murray River. It doesn’t sound like much, but protests of that size (Tocumwal’s population is only 2600) and ferocity are rare in small, conservative rural communities. Frustrated farmers in the MDB are increasingly turning to water rights campaigns and climate advocates to voice their grievances. Prominent group Farmers for Climate Action recently travelled to Canberra to meet with government MPs, and even managed to get new environment minister Sussan Ley to speak publicly about the link between climate change and the current drought — again, doesn’t sound like much, but it’s significant. The tensions between farmers, rural landowners and the government will continue to escalate as long as rainfall remains low, and climate change is making sure rain outlooks remain bleak.
The Murray Darling Basin is in the grip of the worst drought on record, and farmers are nervous and angry about the prospect of water shortages. Just next door to your electorate huge regional cities in NSW are facing their “Day Zero” in the coming months, when rivers and dams that supply their drinking water dry up. And no doubt you were made aware of the massive protest in Tocumwal, where Australian farmers were compelled to throw an effigy of you into the Murray river. I’ll repeat that: Australian farmers were so riled up by the drought conditions and anger with water mismanagement they gathered to protest — that’s not a sentence you hear very often! Climate change is driving record low rainfalls in the MDB and Sussan Ley made it clear when she appeared with Farmers for Climate Action: climate change is behind this record-breaking drought. MDB farmers and landowners need a plan, and as federal water minister they’re looking to you to steer a way out of the crisis.
And, as minister for natural disaster & emergency management, it should be painfully obvious to you that firefighters cannot continue to fight blazes like Queensland’s historic spring bushfires. Current and former firefighters are all saying the same thing: these conditions are getting beyond their abilities, and they’re scared of what the future holds. If climate change continues to dry out Australia’s interior and cause fire seasons to start earlier and earlier we will soon reach a point where emergency services will be simply unable to combat some fire events. Again: people are looking to you for a plan on how to tackle this escalating crisis. We urge you to fully accept the responsibilities of your portfolio, recognise the severe danger climate change is putting regional Australia at risk of and help contribute to a plan that ensures a healthy future for regional Australians.
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Hon. David Littleproud MP