EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Is there an answer to recurrent drought?
, September 21, 2002
As the drought extends its tentacles across the eastern half of Australia, putting the livelihood of embattled grain and livestock producers and their families at risk, once again Governments are offering emergency aid to get farmers through.
The extent of the crisis is seen in the recent statement by the Bureau of Meteorology that severe rainfall deficiencies persist over "a vast sweep of country extending from northwest WA across the NT and northern SA to western Queensland, and further southward across most of NSW and the western half of Victoria, eastern Tasmania and parts of the southwest of WA", the classic signs of an El Niño event.
While supplies of stockfeed and bridging finance are very important, they offer little more than band-aid solutions for vulnerable people who for generations have made a major contribution to the Australian economy, its culture, and way of life.Different policy
Far different is the policy of the United States, where memories of the disastrous effects of the "dust bowl years", the 1930s, were permanently etched into the American psyche through books such as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath
, and shaped subsequent US agricultural policy.
Until the 1930s, American government support programs for agriculture were minimal, and public policy generally supported individual self-reliance. As one American writer observed, "The Depression helped 'soften deep-rooted, hard-line attitudes of free enterprise, individualism, and the passive role of the government', in favour of a range of measures designed to reduce the impact of drought and low agricultural prices. (R.A Warrick, in Climatic Constraints and Human Activities
Apart from providing emergency cash, supplies, livestock feed and transport, Washington also established government-based markets for farm goods, higher tariffs, and loan funds for farm maintenance and rural business which depends on agriculture.
These have been expanded, and now provide the rationale for the massive system of agricultural subsidies which are embodied in the latest US Farm Bill.
At the same time, the Administration embarked on a program of national development projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, to drought-proof the Great Plains and generate cheap electricity for rural America.
In contrast, government policy in Australia has been largely based on the principle that market forces, not Governments, should shape rural Australia. The consequence of this has been a collapse in the rural population throughout the 20th century.
The Australian Year Book 1998
records that in 1911, 43 per cent of Australians lived in rural areas. By 1976, this had fallen to just 14 per cent, a significant proportion of whom live on the fringes of the big cities.
If Australia, arguably the driest continent, is to overcome the effects of recurrent drought, it will need to look at how other countries, including the United States, have addressed similar problems in the past.
Professor Lance Endersbee, former Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University, has pointed out that most of Australia's major irrigation diversion works, including the Snowy River Scheme, are over 50 years old. The diversion structures, canals and irrigated lands were designed as a gravity system, and this has led to serious salinity problems in low-lying areas.
He said, "If we were to now re-design the irrigation works of the Murray-Darling Basin, using all our new knowledge and resources, the overall layout could be quite different, and much bigger.
"We could probably double or triple the area under irrigation for the same volume of water. The value of output would increase accordingly".
Professor Endersbee has also proposed that Australia should divert inland flood waters from the rivers which flow into the Gulf of Carpentaria.
He says there are several potential reservoir sites at high level in the upper catchment of the Gulf rivers.
Storages at these levels could command a wide range of potential irrigation areas in the Gulf country, in the catchments of the rivers flowing into Lake Eyre, and further south in Queensland, even extending to the Murray-Darling Basin.
These salt-free surface waters could also supply some of the Queensland towns now dependent on artesian waters.
Such a national development program would complement a national fast rail line, designed to permit the rapid transit of agricultural produce to Darwin, for shipment to Asian ports.
The money for such a program could come from a national development fund whose funds - as in Singapore - would come from the government-mandated superannuation levy. With the prospect of low or negative returns from superannuation investments in overseas stockmarkets, government-guaranteed investment in Australia's future has suddenly become more attractive.
To help farmers and business, a National Development Bank, as proposed by Will Bailey, former CEO of the ANZ Bank, could also be funded from government-guaranteed superannuation. All that is needed is vision.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council