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The battle for Australia's water

Farmer at water supply
Image caption A farmer watches over his water supply in the Murray-Darling Basin

The Murray-Darling Basin, in south-east Australia, is the country's breadbasket. But following more than a decade of drought, the government wants farmers there to cut their water usage drastically - proposals that have provoked a furious reaction.

Australian farmer John Ward says he has one thing on his mind as he drives around parts of New South Wales these days.

Water.

Like many other farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin, Mr Ward is worried there won't be enough to continue farming when his children get older.

"I introduce myself from time to time as John Ward, New South Wales Farmers' Association spokesman, and parent of children that need employment", he says.

Australia's recent 12-year drought, which finally ended last year, hit rural communities hard.

Now the Australian government wants farmers, like Ward, to cut their water consumption by 30-40% to conserve the region's water resources.

"We're talking about the heart and lungs of our nation," says Mike Neville, the Mayor of Griffith - a local farming community producing wheat, vegetables, and wine. "You can't take the heart and lungs out of a person and expect them to survive," he says.

What government giveth...

The Murray-Darling Basin became Australia's major food-growing region through intensive management of its rivers.

In the 1920s, the government began building large-scale dams and diverted watercourses to provide irrigation.

Local farmers say those engineering projects performed miracles, turning the largely parched nation of Australia into a food exporter.

"Why would we want to limit the production capacity of an area like this? It just doesn't make sense," says Neville.

The proposed cuts to water usage, he says, will destroy farm communities at the whim of politicians and city-dwellers.

But others disagree, saying limits are needed to secure the region's future.

"The Darling river is running dry," says Richard Eckard, director of the Climate Challenges Centre at the University of Melbourne.

"You can't extract that volume of water and have anything downstream," he says. "The ecology is pretty wrecked compared to what it used to be - there's not much life. The fishing industry is all but gone."

The Australian government says it must take urgent measures to re-balance the distribution of water among farms, cities, and the environment.

For some, the government's proposals don't go far enough.

Tim Stubbs is a member of Australia's Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

"I'm an engineer, so I see the river as a functional machine," he says, "and just like, say, your body, we need a certain amount in the river so it can be healthy, so we can continue to use it for irrigation in the long-term. At the moment, we're using it in a way that will mean it won't be useful for irrigation at all in the not-too-distant future."

Stubbs says water cuts would not decimate farm communities. But even if many of the farmers in the region were forced to leave the industry, he says, "you're probably looking at over $1.5m going to each individual to do something different".

That is part of approximately $10bn the Australian government has set aside to help farmers.

Eckard says some farmers have already proven they can get by with less water.

"We've got the northern dairy industry, for example, that went from over 100% water allocation down to less than 30% in the space of four years. By the end of the drought, they were producing as much milk as they were before," he says.

A lot of dairy farmers did go out of business, acknowledges Eckard, but those that adapted to using less water - by upgrading their infrastructure and improving efficiency - flourished.

Burning the plans

But don't try telling that to the farming communities of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Back in the town of Griffith, Jim Jackson makes his living by transporting melons.

Referring to the government in Canberra he says, "They have just, I don't know, gone off their rockers, haven't they?"

Jackson's attitude reflects a wider distrust of officialdom, and of scientists who argue the recent drought is a sign of a warming climate.

Many farmers in the region dismiss climate change as a hoax, and see the government's proposed water cuts as a mortal threat to their communities.

And the anger has not been limited to words.

Farmer John Ward says when a draft of new official water guidelines was unveiled last year, farmers in Griffith let the government know what they thought about it.

"They piled them up and burned them. That's what we think. Come back with something we can live with, and something that has balance in it."

The government's final water management plan for the Murray-Darling Basin won't be out until next year.

Those figures are being hotly debated now.

But it seems clear that, one way or another, Australia's farmers will have to get used to life with less water.

Additional reporting by Rob Hugh-Jones

You can hear a radio version of this piece at The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH in Boston. The radio report is part of a series, and was first broadcast on PRI's The World on 27 September, 2011.