Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
When it comes to water, Australia is a land of extremes. Over the past decade, the country has seen some of the worst droughts and floods in its recorded history.
In the early 2000’s, the state was wondering if it might run out of fresh water because of severe drought. Then, just last year, flooding in the northeastern state of Queensland killed at least 35 people and caused more than a billion dollars in damage.
These kinds of unpredictable conditions have forced Australians to adapt in a variety of ways.
In 2010, the government set aside 12.9 billion dollars over the current decade to help secure its water supplies. Nearly half of that money is going toward rural and agricultural projects.
Laurie Black is inspecting one of his sorghum plants up close.
“Now you see that’s just a bit weathered although when you take it out of the husk it’s still quite bright grain.”
Sorghum is a cereal crop a lot like wheat or barley. In Australia, it’s mostly grown as cattle feed. But in other parts of the world such as Asia and Africa, it’s a staple food.
By all accounts it’s a hardy plant – which is good in an environment like this where it can get pretty dry. It’s also good for someone like Black, who’s a dryland farmer.
“Our sole source of moisture comes from the clouds.”
The biggest challenge for a dryland farmer like Black is figuring out how to make the most out of every drop of rainfall. One of the ways he does that is through something called zero-till farming.
It means disturbing the soil as little as possible to preserve its moisture. It involves expensive machinery, like long-armed planters that inject seeds directly into the soil or tractors armed with inch-accurate GPS to help maximize the farmland.
When Black began experimenting with the techniques back in the 1990’s, he was pretty quickly convinced the investment would be worth it.
During the early 2000’s, Australia was hit by one of the worst droughts in its recorded history. It was so bad many farmers went out of business. But in spite of these tough conditions, the Black family’s farm did relatively well.
“Farmers need to grow as much crop as they can. There are still some farmers trying to do it the old way. If they could just step out of their little circle and see the advantage, they’d be better off.”
Crop researcher Vijaya Singh has been studying the root systems of sorghum for about six years.
Just like Black, Singh also has been looking at the issue of making sorghum more efficient with water. Except she’s doing it at a genetic level.
Large agrochemical firms have been experimenting with plant genetics for a long time. Some have even developed what they call “drought-resistant” crops, with some success.
What’s unique about Singh’s research is that she’s looking at the plants’ roots to see if she can make them more efficient.
“We know that the root system is a very important organ of any plant. If we understand the shape of the root system, we can determine how it’s going to capture water.”
Singh uses narrow, transparent planters to get a side view of how sorghum roots grow. It turns out some roots grow deep into the ground while others grow closer to the surface. Roots that grow straighter downward can find moisture deep in the soil more easily.
Professor Hammer, a crop expert at The University of Queensland, says they’ve been able to locate the genetic markers that determine this trait. He hopes to breed sorghum for specific environments.
“It’s a crop that’s grown in areas that commonly get drought. But that doesn’t mean it will always survive. That’s why these tricks are good because you can adjust the system to get the most effective use of the water that’s available to you. That’s really what we’re after.”
Starting around the year 2000, a severe drought hit much of Australia.
By 2007, fresh water supplies in Brisbane had reached a record low. Other major cities like Melbourne and Sydney were facing similar shortages. Some experts said Brisbane’s water could run out within a year.
Without a crystal ball to say for sure when it might rain again, or how much, the city’s leaders began construction on a seven-billion dollar, high-tech water system.
Michael Fiechtner is with Seqwater, which is the South East Queensland's main water supplier. The firm runs a number of dams, catchments, and treatment centers.
At this waste-water recycling facility, sewage can be converted into pure drinking water using a process known as reverse-osmosis.
“It’s acetate that’s just wrapped round and round. It’s solid but under high pressure you can push water through it.”
Fiechtner says nasty bits like pesticides, hormones and organic materials are left behind. He actually says the water that comes out of this process is so pure, you can’t drink it straight. Minerals like calcium have to be added to it first, to keep the water from leaching those same minerals from your body.
Luckily, no one in the region has had to drink recycled water just yet because more than enough rain eventually came.
Abel Immaraj, a planning manager at the Queensland Water Commission in Brisbane, has to juggle the uncertainty of tomorrow’s rainfall with the needs of the region’s two-and-a-half million people.
“The power of water is the one thing that did strike me when I was really young. You go to a site, and then one day, the foundations are there. There's lots of people working on the dam site. Then a few hours later, they say there’s a flood coming. Then everything is evacuated. You go back a couple days later and nothing is there. Then it's back to square one.”
The floods that came in early 2011 are a good example of how fickle the weather can be and with the population continuing to grow, the stakes are only getting higher. Immaraj says it’s a compex situation.
“The fact that water is boom or bust – you might go from droughts to floods, particularly in Australia – is what makes it particularly complex.”
But there are a couple signs they’re doing things right.
The first is that the state-of-the-art water system works. Ironically, it wasn't drought that triggered the need, but last year’s floods. They ended up contaminating some of the region’s drinking water, so the desalination plants were switched on to increase supplies.
The other promising aspect is the people.
During the drought, residents in Brisbane were able to cut the amount of water they used every day by more than half. Just by using old dishwater on their gardens, taking shorter showers, and changing a few other behaviors, average daily use dropped from about 80 gallons a day to 36.
Even though the drought has been over now for a several years, that number has only crept up slightly.
“I’m not surprised at all that as a whole community we responded straight away to the drought in ways that, you look back and say, ‘Wasn't that phenomenal?’ But really, that’s what happens in Australia across the board. It’s a very resilient community. I’ve been in small regional communities where you have to go and talk to them, ‘You have ten days of water supply left and then we’re going to have to start trucking in.’ And they say, ‘Well let’s go for those nine days and we’ll decide on the tenth day if we need to.’ So it’s not surprising.”
Over the last decade, it’s pretty clear that Australians have been able to adapt pretty well to the dry years and wet ones. If anything, the challenges have motivated more than a few people to look at ways of anticipating even tougher years in the future.
Whatever the clouds bring, Australia will be waiting.
– Reported by Michael Rhee for America Abroad