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Australia is not ready for the next big dry

Three years ago in March 2010, southeast Australia was still in the grip of “the big dry” or the “millennium drought” - billed as the worst drought since European settlement. Dams across the Murray-Darling…

The lessons learnt from the Millennium drought may not help us prepare for the next Big Dry. Flickr/thoughtfactory

Three years ago in March 2010, southeast Australia was still in the grip of “the big dry” or the “millennium drought” - billed as the worst drought since European settlement. Dams across the Murray-Darling Basin were down to only 25% of capacity. Then the floods came, followed by yet more floods.

Five months ago, the dams were 95% full. Since then, several thousands of gigalitres have been released and today the dams sit at around 70% - almost exactly the level they sat in 2001 when the drought first started to bite. Meanwhile, governments have spent billions of dollars trying to prepare Australia for the next dry, but the complexity of droughts means we have little hope of being ready.

The millennium drought

A recently published study, which I co-authored, analysed climate, water, economic and satellite data to try to determine the impacts of the millennium drought from 2001 to 2009.

The millennium drought was unique in being both widespread and protracted. Had it been more local, the Murray River might not have been as affected. Entire floodplain forests died along the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin; for many of them, the drought was just the final straw. Some of them had not seen a flood for decades.

There were also some surprises; for example, that the terminal lakes of the Murray River would become truly terminal, turning into shrinking brine pools, leaving toxic acid soils in their wake. There was even a “happy” surprise: the drought put a stop to rising groundwater levels and river salinity and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had no trouble achieving its salinity targets. (Unfortunately it did not help the ultimate aim: to protect the Murray River and Adelaide’s drinking water.)

In trying to determine what was behind the low rainfall, we found only partial answers. In northeast Australia, the El Niño cycle could explain most of the observed drought conditions. In southeast Australia it was mainly a lack of autumn and winter rainfall that contributed to the protracted drought. This may have been caused by natural cycles in the Pacific ocean or by the same global weather system changes that are drying out southwest Australia and are consistent with climate models. We found some support for both ideas. In any case, it means we may have to assume that these new climate conditions are not going to change back anytime soon.

Are we prepared?

In reaction to the millennium drought the Australian government has spent more than $25 billion to improve irrigation infrastructure, buy back water entitlements, improve water information, help struggling farmers, build new desalination plants, modify and expand water supply systems, and commission research, development and planning studies.

New laws were also introduced, the National Water Commission and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority were created, and new staff appointed in various government departments and agencies. When it’s all combined, each of us will be chipping in well over $1500 in tax and water bills to pay for it.

You might think that these government measures will prepare us for the next drought. Unfortunately, that is unlikely.

Our study made clear that droughts are wickedly complex disasters, that each is bad in a different way, and that we basically have very few means to prevent their impacts.

For starters, each new big drought is likely to be the “worst on record” in some new way and bring its own surprises. This is partly because severe droughts are by definition rare; on average they happen once every 20 years or so. Over such long periods, our collective memory fades and society changes.The WWII drought was about as bad as the one we just had, but a lot of things changed in our society in between.

A dam sits in contrast on the flat dry landscape of the 200,000 acre sheep station of Trilby on the Murray River. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Each new drought is also unique because drought severity can be measured in three different dimensions: how widespread they are, how deep they bite, and for how long they grind us down. In that last respect, the millennium drought was a shocker.

Each drought is different

The drought affected Australia in so many different ways, and interacted with so many other events and changes, that often we have no way of knowing what a similar drought would have done 20 years ago, or what it will do 20 years from now. Many impacts can be explained in hindsight. But being able to explain the impacts, does not mean we understand them well enough to predict them. And if we cannot predict the impacts, there is little hope that we can prevent them.

For example, we could estimate that Australia’s dry land wheat production was 20% lower during the drought years than it would have been under average conditions. Despite that, total wheat production still went up, because farmers continued to innovate and expand cropping area. Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels may also have helped the crops.

The study found that the reduced river outflows and lack of flooding were literally made two times worse because of the way the dams and weirs were operated. Don’t blame the river managers: the operating procedures were designed to secure water for the people and businesses relying on it, not to make the river flood. The recent decision to set aside 2750 gigalitres per year for the environment will not dramatically turn this around. And then, for some floodplain forests the recent floods may have come too late; they may be gone forever.

The water and drought policy reforms so far have certainly not inoculated us against drought, and progress on the thorniest issues appears to be stalling. Better drought monitoring and forecasting systems are being put in place by the Bureau of Meteorology. They may be ready in time to warn us for the next big drought, but will not stop it.

Some politicians still have their pipe dreams, believing we can drought-proof Australia by pumping water from the wet north. That may be possible in theory, but will we fill the rivers and drench our dry lands with it? The costs would be astronomical, not to mention the side effects. As Wentworth Group member John Williams put it, perhaps it is time we myth-proof Australia instead. Maybe we should stop trying to fight droughts, and start living with them.

Regardless, the next drought will likely bring some new nasty surprises and break some record or other. What is a fairly safe bet is that temperatures will have risen further by then. The 2003 summer heat waves in Europe and subsequent summer heat waves in the US, Russia and China have shown that increasingly, droughts and heat waves will go hand in hand.

With the dams sitting almost exactly where they were before the big dry, it seems we are primed for the even bigger dry.

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21 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    I've discussed this just today with some of my neighbours in SW Tasmania, that is whether we are at the start of the next big dry. They optimistically suggest things will go back to 'normal' soon. However we may need better than normal rainfall to make up the deficit. The BoM points to the SOI reading which says all will be well. Perhaps climate change can now bring drought without El Nino.

    However I'm giving it til Friday to pump water several hundred metres from my neighbour's holding tank…

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to John Newlands

      Maybe we can just build lots of nuclear power plant sinstead...except that...oh yeah..they are almost unbelievably thirsty, aren't they?

      Back to the drawing board, then...

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    2. Albert Van Dijk

      Professor of Water Science and Management, Fenner School of Environment & Society at Australian National University

      In reply to John Newlands

      Hope you had some rain since John. SW Tasmanian does not respond the same way to El Nino/La Nina as the east coast: have a look at http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/ahead/rain_ahead.shtml for the seasonal forecast for your area. Unfortunately it is not looking too promising. It seems you may be affected by the same weather patterns bringing drought to New Zealand (http://eos.csiro.au/apwm/latest_Qtot_decile_d30.html). Still, seasonal climate forecasts are not very accurate (yet?) so let's hope you'll still get some good rains.

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  2. Michael Hay

    retired

    The concept of transferring water from where it is to where it is needed is as old as humanity itself. It is not a disastrous concept.
    The author commits a cardinal error in stating platitudes. Transporting water is prohibively expensive and he makes reference to the damming of existing seasonal flows in the northern rivers. Neither of these two concepts should ever be alloewed to enter this conversation as they are indicative of a determination to NOT find any solutions.
    The water which causes…

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Michael Hay

      We drink and then piss out a huge amount of water then send it straight out to sea, we also send the water that lands on our roofs straight out to sea as fast as possible, any water that lands on the road...you guessed it, straight out to sea as fast as possible.

      Its almost as if in one instance we cant stand water and the next we are crying about not having it

      I think you are right, we are going about things the wrong way

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    2. Michael Hay

      retired

      In reply to Michael Shand

      It is all thought. Logic follows, inspiration ascends and Éureka', we have a solution. The Conversation is a great place to air views - whether radical or conventional. Let us keep the discussion going and not reply to the negatives.

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    3. Albert Van Dijk

      Professor of Water Science and Management, Fenner School of Environment & Society at Australian National University

      In reply to Michael Hay

      Michael, my point was more that you cannot prevent all impacts that drought has on rivers and dry land crop lands by piping in water from elsewhere - think about how many hectares of land and how many kilometers of creeks and rivers you'd be talking. Piping water for irrigation is a more realistic proposition, but there are technical problems (storing water, evaporation losses), energy use efficiency arguments (your line of argument could potential also be used to justify irrigation with desalinised…

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    4. Michael Hay

      retired

      In reply to Albert Van Dijk

      Albert, I never proposed that ALL problems would be solved by piping water. My proposal was specific, i.e. one line of pipes, producing one product (electricity) with the anciliary benefit of adding to Darling River flows, or the level of Lake Menindee or some other end point to the pipeline.
      Building water storages withour encroaching on existing river systems in layman's terms is a turkey-nest dam. But if a deep gully could be dammed, it would be much better - more water, less evaporation.
      I should hope that scientists and engineers would have upped their standards since the Snowy River was decimated by poor engineering (or was that poor politics?)
      With our current knowledge and our innate ability to think outside the conventional square, surely there is the opportunity to look forward in order to deal with the new developments in our climate.

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  3. Kym Afford
    Kym Afford is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Population activist

    Looking at the drop in rainfall from a long term average to 2000 of around 760mm pa. the past thirteen years (2000 inclusive) show a drop to around 600 mm. none have broken that long term average and since October 1 our expected rainfall from 2000 - 2012 is 192 mm, but we have only had 82 mm. I note a bore I use to irrigate has its salinity rise from 1800ppm to 2450ppm. Rainfall we used to get now falls out at sea, thanks to the Hadley vortexes enlarging with Climate Change or increase in temperature.
    These are not scientific observations but those of a person who has a lifetime of watching and learning, from a time when I was in the arid zone in the NE of SA, Escaping to The Adelaide Hills where I thought I would never have to consider drought again. From the early 80's until mid 90's there was no reason to think otherwise, but since then a dam that was always filled and overflowed in winter has never been more than half full.
    This is normal now!

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Kym Afford

      " This is normal now! "
      I reckon you have that about right Kym for aside from what us humans do in attempting to engineer the best from nature and even with whatever CO2 and pollutants we create in living, our own life on this planet is but for a very short period and nature will still be continuing to do its own thing.

      There was a documentary on the other night that focused on the Sahara, part of a David Attenborough series on Africa and it caught my attention for a couple of reasons, one being…

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    2. Kym Afford
      Kym Afford is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Population activist

      In reply to Greg North

      Greg,
      In the first instance a conversation like this is not possible in the normal "Letters to The Editor,' because of what I see as bias and that follows as Boltism pf dumb bias.
      So thank you for replying and at length.
      The thing that worries me is the rate at which things are now happening - a few years ago I was in Canada and the penny dropped, we were going to the Niagara Falls, and travelled down roads of three laned traffic, there was an Ikea to the right, maybe we passed two, There is…

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    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Greg North

      "aside from what us humans do in attempting to engineer the best from nature and even with whatever CO2 and pollutants " - you realise that every action taken is affecting and re-engineering nature right?

      So we can either do this conciously and try to thoughtfully create a world where we can live with dignity

      Or

      We can engineer nature unconciously and live under whatever conditions that create

      As for nature being fine without our help, I take the George Carlin view which is "Dont worry about the planet, the planet is fine....the people are fukd"

      Yes the planet will live on but thats not the point, we all need to take responsibility for our actions and if our actions create CO2 which in turn creates an inhospitable environment for following generations - you cant jst brush that off as if we had nothing to do with it

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  4. Ron Chinchen

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    Easy to forget the fear we felt three or four years ago. I suspect the periods of 'droughts and flooding rains' is going to become increasingly extreme in future. I must push again in our body corporate for water tanks. I suspect we'll need them in a few years. And I suspect those who pooh poohed Flannery's warnings will be wished they hadnt.

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      I have a "Swift Kick in the Crotch" list of people who have been actively fighting, discrediting or undermining the work of great people like Flannery. Its not going to help much but it will make me feel better

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  5. Kym Afford
    Kym Afford is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Population activist

    A very learned friend responded to my comment and I thought it worth contributing.
    He remains anonymous, no doubt deserves a medal, but..
    "At all levels,talk is followed more talk, inquiry is followed by inquiry without, seemingly, nought ever being achieved. Bringing water from the north of Australia is likened to the fast rail service between Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne; both appear to be doomed to never seeing the light of day.

    For many years I have considered that a small, definite start…

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    1. Albert Van Dijk

      Professor of Water Science and Management, Fenner School of Environment & Society at Australian National University

      In reply to Kym Afford

      Kym, often it is not the engineering challenges that stop these sorts of projects but the fact that people no longer agree on water resources being wasted or underused. You probably know that diverting the Clarence has been debated for a long time (found some news reports here http://www.abc.net.au/rural/nsw/content/2010/10/s3038483.htm and here
      http://www.dailyexaminer.com.au/news/river-diversion-on-agenda-grafton/1459041/).

      A well-functioning democracy should be able to treat these type of big projects on their merit and weigh up pros and cons. You seem to be be saying that we need to (temporary?) suspend democracy to push them through. In a democracy that is an opinion you are entitled to.

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  6. Peter Bysouth

    Semi-Retired

    Dear Professor Albert.
    Thank you for an interesting article and a timely reminder but may I question the statement "...that the terminal lakes of the Murray River would become truly terminal, turning into shrinking brine pools, leaving toxic acid soils in their wake...". Surely, the drying of the lower lakes to such a state was the result of the barrages that sealed the Murray mouth in 1946 that is the real issue(?).

    The lower lakes have been estuarine since at least the last ice age and…

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    1. Albert Van Dijk

      Professor of Water Science and Management, Fenner School of Environment & Society at Australian National University

      In reply to Peter Bysouth

      Thanks for making the point Peter. There is no doubt that the barrages influence water level and salinity in the lakes, though whether opening them would have been a good idea is pretty contested, as you are probably aware.
      My only point was that the lower lakes drama was one of those surprises that did not occur last drought. That said, in our paper we estimated that in a hypothetical drought without any dams, regulation or diversion in the Basin, about twice as much fresh water would have flowed…

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