Australia's food bowl along the Murray-Darling rivers basin, which accounts for the country's 41% agriculture produce faces an unprecedentedly dangerous situation if it does not rain in the next six to eight weeks warned Australian Primer Minister John Howard.
In the most chilling assessment yet of the water crisis, PM Howard said that "unless there was heavy rain in the next six to eight weeks, there would be no water allocations for irrigation in the basin" which accounts for 71% of Australia's irrigated crops and 41% of the nation's agricultural produce. The economic "hole" could reach 36 billion US dollars plus sending fruit and vegetable prices soaring. Mr Howard called on all Australians to pray for rain "without any sense of irony or any sense of being anything other than totally serious" because the situation for farmers was critical. "Based on the need to provide a critical minimum supply of water to urban communities within the basin, there is unlikely to be any water available for irrigation purposes in the upcoming water year (August to May)," Mr Howard said. "The impact that this is going to have on the horticultural industry and crops like grapes and stone fruits and other primary industries that rely on irrigation, including the dairy industry, is very critical indeed." He said some farmers would be able to use rivers for their personal needs, but not for stock. "In other cases, as many farmers have been doing already, they may have to truck in water," he said. "It is a grim situation and there is no point in pretending to the Australian public otherwise". Irrigators warned that massive food price rises will result if no water is allocated to Murray-Darling Basin farmers. "If it continues like this ... we will see food become increasingly scarce and it will be reflected in the price of it," the Irrigation Association of Australia's chief executive officer, Jolyon Burnett, said. "Farmer organizations will need to work with governments to talk about support packages for communities, because once you stop the irrigation, you're basically turning off a lot of the business and wealth creation in the region" warned Murray Dairy chief executive Maurice Incerti. Australia's National Farmers Federation chief executive Ben Fargher said that meat prices would be likely to initially fall as farmers in the basin were forced to sell their stock for slaughter, but they would then rise sharply as herds were rebuilt, a process that tends to take years. Wine Grape Growers Australia's executive director Mark McKenzie said the impact of no irrigation water for a year would be "severe and deep" for horticulture communities and the effects could be disastrous in the long term. Murray-Darling Basin Commission chief executive Wendy Craik said while rainfall in the first quarter of this year was near average over much of the Murray catchment's, there had been little improvement in run-off. The Murray-Darling Basin contains more than more than 40% of all Australian farms with a production value equivalent to Australia's 40% national total. It covers an area of 1-06 million square kilometers and with almost two million people it includes 75% of Australia's irrigated crops and pastures. Last February the Australian Agriculture and Economic Resources Office warned that this season's crops could be reduced as much as 60%. He specifically mentioned that 90% of the rice and 42% of the cotton crops were lost.