“The Biggest Dry” – Water Crisis Cripples SE Australia’s Agriculture, Environment, Economy and Culture, Circle of Blue Reports

For Immediate Release: March 17, 2009

“The Biggest Dry” – Water Crisis Cripples SE Australia’s Agriculture, Environment, Economy and Culture, Circle of Blue Reports

Have your say: share ideas, stories with the world; ground-breaking international online event to help find solutions

Biggest Dry(Oakland, Calif.) Not since the American Dust Bowl of the early 20th century has an industrialized nation sustained more damage from drought and water scarcity in its prime food-growing region than in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, according to an extensive multimedia report published by Circle of Blue, the journalism and science project of the Pacific Institute.

Addressing this crisis, Circle of Blue has launched Idea Central, the groundbreaking online event for people to collaborate, share their thoughts, experiences, suggestions, and solutions about the Murray-Darling Basin and related global water issues. The limited-time Idea Central event runs March 17 – April 16. Hundreds have already pre-registered.

Participate in Idea Central now at:  http://circleofblue.imaginatik.com.

Imaginatik, developer of collaborative innovation and problem-solving software and processes, is contributing its Idea Central software – “the ideas box of the digital age” – to bring together and organize Australia’s and the world’s best thinkers: from students to scientists, farmers to engineers, policy makers to indigenous peoples.

The goal is to generate solutions to the Murray-Darling Basin’s water challenge from local and global perspectives. Results will help people facing similar problems in other parts of the world and will be published in the spring. The Idea Central process is used by multinational companies and universities to generate the highest level of creative problem-solving.

“Australia is used to dealing with drought, but the magnitude of what it faces in the Murray-Darling Basin is testing its ingenuity, stressing its budget, and dispiriting many of its people,” said J. Carl Ganter, director of Circle of Blue. “Every major food-growing, water-managed region should be watching how the country responds.”

In “The Biggest Dry: Australia’s Epic Drought is a Global Warning,” Circle of Blue reports that drought is damaging the nation’s ability to feed itself and the expanding hunger of the world. It is imposing profound changes on the land, pushing people out of their homes, aggravating long-simmering tensions between the government and Australia’s indigenous people, and causing mass die-offs of plants and animals. It is forcing the Commonwealth and four states to agree on new ways to govern in order to secure and manage water. Over $12 billion in public funds have been committed to modernize infrastructure and change growing techniques in order to conserve declining water supplies.

“Australia is at the vanguard of a major shift in how we as developed, agricultural nations thrive, survive, or fail in coping with a much drier 21st-century water environment,” Ganter said.

While the immediate reality of the situation may be grim for Australia and potentially the world – tragic bush fires, drying wetlands, dying forests, failing crops, and depressed communities – Circle of Blue finds resilient people rich with ideas and inquiry.

“What we need to do in the world is to take the best ideas, like how we use water, and share them as rapidly as we can all the way ’round the world,” Australian science author Julian Cribb tells Circle of Blue.

The World Watches and Learns
More than five million people die each year due to a lack of safe drinking water, and the U.N. estimates that 5.5 billion people will lack adequate access to freshwater in the next 20 years. Water scarcity has emerged as a serious threat to peoples across the world. Called “the new oil” for the 21st century, water affects everything.

Officials in other nations are taking special note of Australia’s challenges. It is the first industrialized nation in modern times to contend with such severe and prolonged drought in its prime food-growing region. It won’t be the only one, assert food, water, and climate experts. South America’s grain-growing region is drying up. Italy, France, and Spain have contended with moisture shortages in recent years. The American Southwest is in the seventh year of a steadily worsening drought that has lowered water levels by 100 feet in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two of the largest reservoirs on earth. For the second straight year, the moisture content is below normal in California’s Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides 60 percent of the state’s water and nearly all of it for the irrigated Central Valley farm region. On February 28, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state drought emergency, calling for dramatic cuts in city and agricultural water use.

“So the very best ideas from the Murray-Darling basin need to be shared with the people who are critically short of water in India and China. The North China plain is critically short of water. The Ogallala aquifer in the United States is critically short of water. We’re critically short of water in the Middle East and places like that. And when the Himalayan glaciers melt, finally, there’s going to be absolute crisis in the north Indian grain bowl. So the ideas for how you use scare water are going to be absolutely central to the destiny of the human race,” Cribb said.

In addition to coverage of global water issues published daily on its site, WaterNews, Circle of Blue’s front-line reporting on the water crisis, ranging from the United States, to Inner Mongolia, Mexico, and Tibet, has been referenced widely by major news and policy organizations; the Council on Foreign Relations has called it a “must read.” Circle of Blue receives funding from foundations, companies, and individuals while ascribing to strict journalistic ethics standards.

Reporting of “The Biggest Dry” is supported by a major grant from the Alpern Family Foundation.

Additional support is provided by SymbioCycles Foundation, Edmund F. & Virginia B. Ball Foundation, Greg Mort Studios, Gyro-Cam Australia, Progress Printers, and Tandem Design.

At a glance

  • The Murray-Darling Basin is experiencing a 12-year drought, the worst since the Federation Drought that ended in 1902.
  • The Basin is highly regulated via dams, weirs, and locks. The Murray River is water-starved: it fails to reach the ocean 40% of the time.
  • Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology predicts that within two-to-three decades, drought will occur twice as often and be twice as severe throughout the continent.
  • Drought conditions in 2007 and 2008 brought Australia’s national sheep herd to its lowest numbers since the 1920s.
  • The Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project is the largest irrigation restoration program in the world.
  • In 2007 the World Wildlife Fund named the Murray-Darling one of the “world’s top ten rivers at risk.”
  • The Murray-Darling Basin encompasses 14% of Australia’s land mass and generates 39% of the national farm income.
  • The Basin produces 53% of Australia’s cereal grain, 95% of its orange crop, and 54% of its apple harvest.
  • Australia’s rice is grown exclusively in the Basin, and drought in the Murray-Darling Basin contributed to the global rice shortage of 2008.
  • Seventy percent of Australia’s irrigated farmlands and pastures lie within the Basin, but it receives only 6% of Australia’s annual rainfall.
  • The vast farming region, bounded on the south by the Murray River and on the west by its sister, the Darling, is one of the most vital sources of fruits, grains, and protein on the planet.

About Circle of Blue
Circle of Blue is the international, nonpartisan network of leading journalists, scientists and communications design experts that reports and presents the information necessary to respond to the global fresh water crisis. It is a nonprofit affiliate of the international water, climate and policy think tank, the Pacific Institute, and publishes WaterNews, the daily go-to source for global water news and data. Circle of Blue has presented at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen Environment Forum, and the World Economic Forum. Circle of Blue adheres to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. It received initial development funding from the Ford Foundation.