The prime minister called the drought 'unprecedented' and said that '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' at the start of the upcoming water year on July 1, unless significant rain falls in the next month.
'If there are no allocations possible, it will have a potentially devastating impact on horticultural crops like grapes and stone fruits and other primary industries that rely on irrigation such as the dairy industry,' Howard said.
The dire warning from Howard and the premiers of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia is based on a report by water experts from the Murray-Darline Basin Commission made public Thursday that projects severe impacts of the drought on agricultural industries.
The Murray-Darling Basin, which covers the catchments of the Murray and Darling rivers, occupies an area of over one million square kilometres in southeastern Australia.
About three-quarters of the total area of irrigated crops and pastures in Australia is in the Murray-Darling Basin and around 70 percent of all water used for agriculture in Australia is used by irrigation in the basin.
It is home to over two million people and another million outside the basin rely upon its water resources. Residents of the Australian capital city of Canberra obtain their drinking water from the Basin.
The city of Adelaide gets its drinking water from the Murray-Darling. In most years, Adelaide draws more than 40 percent of its water from the Murray. During droughts this dependence increases to more than 90 percent.
In addition, many small communities of under 1,000 people scattered throughout the basin, many small towns, several larger towns and a few small urban centers rely upon water from the Murray-Darling river system.
The basin is inhabited by at least 35 endangered species of birds and 16 endangered mammals.
Announcing the report, Commission Chief Executive Dr. Wendy Craik tried to strike a positive note, saying, 'We’ve had improved rainfall over the southern Murray-Darling Basin with falls near average over January to March 2007 quarter.'
But, she said, 'Realistically, it is likely to take multiple years of well above average rainfall before storages return to long term average levels.'
Dr. Craik confirmed that water availability for 2007 and 2008 is projected to be 'extremely low,' particularly early in the next irrigation season.
Victoria Premier Steve Bracks said today that previous reports from the commission have warned of a prolonged drought. 'I don't think it will come as any surprise to the irrigators in Victoria, who have had that notice for some time. I can't say what that notice was in other states. Certainly in our state, it will be of no surprise. Probably a surprise for the rest of the nation,' he told ABC Radio.
Concerned about the basin's crops and livestock, the National Farmers' Federation held urgent talks with the Australian Government today.
'Farmers recognize that when water levels are so low, the paramount consideration must be securing water supply for basic human needs,' said federation president David Crombie. 'However, the prime minister yesterday also seemed to be ruling out allocations for other essential water use, to keep permanent tree plantings and livestock alive.'
'When you consider the Murray-Darling Basin constitutes 40 percent of the total value of Australian agricultural production, with some 50,000 farmers dependent on the system, we're talking about a national economic crisis we have not seen before in this country,' said Crombie.
'Annually, agriculture drives and generates A$103 billion in production for the nation underpinning 12 percent of GDP, $30 billion in exports, and supports 1.6 million Australian jobs across our cities and regions,' Crombie said. 'We are also responsible for most of the food on Australian supermarket shelves.'
'With the Murray-Darling Basin such a huge contributor, if the farm sector – particularly the perennial and livestock growers – is allowed to just wither and die, we're looking at billions of dollars wiped off the national accounts. There is also the potential impact on employment and, for the first time, Australia may have to turn to imports to feed its people,' he warned.
If the livestock herds, trees and vines die, Crombie said, 'the economic impact will take up to 10 years before we can hope to recover.'
The commission said the cutoff of water to irrigators as of July 1, will mean that most of the basin residents will have drinking water. But, the commission said that for some smaller towns, where access is interrupted and where water quality issues arise, special measures, possibly including trucking potable water, may be required.
In their statement, the prime minister and premiers said the headwater catchments of the River Murray have received the lowest rainfall on record from January 2006 to February 2007.
Due to the 'critical' situation, they warned that contigency planning would continue through to mid-2008.
In addition, they said, the current water sharing system under the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement will be have to be modified 'as a matter of urgency.'
It is proposed that the quantities of water currently in storage and estimated to be available in 2007-08 based on the minimum inflow scenario, be first allocated for critical human water consumption needs. This will enable core critical demand to be met most effectively.
This drought, which in many parts of the basin dates back to 1997, is at least as serious as the major prolonged droughts 1895-1903 and 1938-1945, the commission report states.
The year of 2006 has been as dry if not drier than the previous extreme drought years of 1902, 1914, 1938, 1940, 1944, 1967, 1982 and 2002 across much of the Basin.
In the Murray Valley, the commission said, inflows have been less than 60 percent of the previous minimum.