Prolonged drought in South Australia: Environmental mismanagement and over-allocation of water

South Australia, the driest state in the driest country in the world, has been in the grip of a drought for several years; a drought that has been dubbed a once in a ‘thousand years’ drought. The effects of this prolonged drought are extremely serious and have affected the state environmentally, socially, and economically.

One environmental effect of the drought has been that the major river in the state (The Murray) has virtually ceased to flow, and the outlet to the sea is a silted-up trickle. As a result of the lack of flow, the lakes at the lower end of the river are drying out dramatically and becoming salty. The fish and turtles that lived in the lake are all dying, and so are many of the small towns and irrigation areas along the river that depended on the river for their survival.

The effects of the drought have been compounded by environmental mismanagement and over-allocation of water by successive governments, and by upstream states taking more of their fair share of water and allowing farmers to grow ridiculously heavy water-using crops such as rice and cotton. But the drought itself is literally drying out the state. Many farmers are pulling out fruit trees they can no longer water, and fishermen cannot get their boats out to go fishing.

Another environmental effect of the long drought has been an invasion of plants into what were the beds of the lakes at the lower end of the river. The first invaders were weeds, but as time goes on these pioneers have led the way for many more plants, especially grasses, to establish themselves in the sand. Along with these plants have come animals, such as rabbits, that feed on them. Ecological niches do not stay vacant for long.

Another effect of the prolonged drought has been the imposition of severe water restrictions in the cities and towns, and they have had environmental effects on gardens, parks and other open spaces. Watering is only permitted twice a week and the time and methods of watering are severely restricted. It is illegal to waste water on lawns (except grey water), and so they are mostly dying. Trees planted by councils are also dying as they exhaust the ground water in the soil, and many parks, gardens and wild areas are simply turning to dust. (The increased amount of dust is also increasing the prevalence of conditions such as asthma.) The soil is so dry now that even the water reserves usually held in the humus are exhausted in many places. Along the banks of the river many trees are dying, and the banks of the river are beginning to collapse as the root structures holding them together die off.

The neighbouring state of Victoria recently experienced disastrous bushfires in which over a hundred people were killed. The prolonged drought had made the bush tinder dry, and the fire spread incredibly quickly. In some places the fire front had flames up to 50 metres (150 feet) high and was travelling at 60 kph (35mph). The fires moved so quickly that many residents of towns in the fire area were killed trying to escape. They were accustomed to fighting bushfires, but they had never seen anything like these fires before.

There are effects beyond the environmental ones too, such as an increase in tension between the states about water use. Rivers do not respect state boundaries and each state thinks of the water in the river systems as ‘their’ water. This means, for example, that water is taken out of the Murray-Darling system by Victorians in order to save their river communities, but as a result, downstream communities in South Australia are doomed.

The drought has also led to the state government making decisions that will change the environment, especially around the lakes, for good, such as building a weir between the river and the lakes to protect Adelaide’s fresh water supply, which is largely drawn from the river. There is also a plan to flood the lower lakes with sea water, thus drastically changing the entire ecology of the system and killing all the native turtles and fish in the lakes. As a result of the prolonged drought the environment of hundreds of square miles of lake and surrounding lands will be changed forever.

The effects on the environment also produce psychological effects in the population. It seems unnatural to live in a dusty, dry environment where all the plants struggle to survive, and where it never rains. People become obsessed with their dry rain gauges, and are endlessly disappointed by forecasts of rain that never actually comes.

The environmental effects of prolonged drought are wide-ranging and serious, and can affect almost every facet of life, even in a rich country like Australia. In poorer countries a prolonged drought like this can mean starvation and death for millions, and environmental damage on an almost unimaginable scale.