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Water and regional survival

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 9 Nov 2006

On behalf of Senator Milne and I, I move:
That the following matters be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee for inquiry and report by 30 June 2007:

(a) the long-term impacts on Australian primary producers, rural communities and the environment of reduced and increasingly variable rainfall, increased temperatures and higher evaporation rates as a result of climate change; and

(b) potential adaptation strategies to mitigate these impacts to ensure the security of Australian food production and maintain the viability of rural communities.

This referral is about a topic of utmost importance to Australia. There has been mounting evidence for over two decades that climatic patterns in our agricultural zones are shifting. We have seen a long-term shift across a range of climatic measures, including annual rainfall, seasonality, the degree of variability both within and between seasons, higher average minimum and maximum temperatures and more extreme weather events. The impacts of these changes have a cumulative effect. For instance, higher temperatures increase evaporation rates, which combine with lower rainfall to further reduce the amount of water in storage.

Furthermore, small reductions in rainfall have been shown to lead to much larger decreases in run-off. For example, in south-west WA, a 21 per cent decrease in rainfall has led to a 64 per cent decrease in stream flows and run-off. The south-west of WA is arguable one of the first places to feel the impact of climate change and also one of the first to acknowledge this and begin to take steps to secure its water resources. I have referred to this in this place on other occasions.

More recently, the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport inquiry into water has heard evidence from the CSIRO that climate change is the biggest threat to the Murray-Darling Basin. We have also heard from the Murray-Darling Basin Commission that there is serious risk-and this has been in the media extensively recently-that a number of the water storages in the basin will bottom out by May next year and that some of our town water supplies in this region will be in crisis. It is worth noting yet again that when CSIRO released its report into the impact of climate change on the Murray-Darling Basin they were accused of scaremongering.
Despite warnings from the Murray-Darling Basin Commission that we have had the lowest rainfalls on record in the last four months, governments have failed to act.

A national water summit did not happen until this week, so we have had the tragic situation where many farmers have poured out tonnes of water just recently to establish their summer crops when it was too late. Why weren't they warned earlier that they should not in fact be preparing their soil for summer crops? Not only have they been given false hope; a lot of water has been used that could have been saved.

They have invested in getting crops going, and now, if they have already planted, they will have to sit and watch them die or acknowledge the fact that they have accidentally wasted water. Now we have the farcical situation of the PM saying that he is thinking about draining wetlands to ensure town supplies. Hasn't he got that a little bit back to front?

We have apparently broken all records this year for the hottest and driest season. We have had the lowest monthly rainfall in the basin for four months running. In some areas, we are now entering the sixth year of drought. This is arguably a combination of an extended dry cycle comparable to the Federation drought on top of a longer term shift in climate. What we can be sure of is that there is little to no chance of ever returning to business as usual. We need to be thinking on the basis of a much harder worst case scenario in the future and we need to be prepared in a way that gives us much greater flexibility to react in a way that minimises the risks and guarantees that water needed for the drinking supplies of towns and cities and water to ensure the survival of our environment is available. The point is that we have seen this coming for a long time, but governments collectively have failed to act.

This will be the biggest issue facing Australian agriculture over the next 20 to 30 years. In fact, it is not just the Greens who think that. If you look at the National Farmers Federation 2003 report on this issue you will see that they acknowledged the same thing. We have a narrow window of opportunity in which to act. Unfortunately, we have lost the lead time that we could have had. Australian farmers are an adaptable and resilient mob. They are the world leaders in terms of levels of innovation, ongoing productivity gains and the rate at which they adopt new farming technologies. They are also acknowledged internationally for their ability to make a go of agricultural production in a harsh and variable climate, with some of the oldest, sandiest and nutrient-limited soils on the planet.
Our dry land farmers in particular are very good at managing the risks of a variable climate. In fact, there is good evidence that WA wheat belt farmers have done exactly that over the last 30 years. They have managed to deliver modest productivity gains over a period during which we have in hindsight identified a 10 per cent to 20 per cent decrease in winter rainfall. Records from 59 broadacre family businesses in the WA southern agricultural region show that between 1995 and 2002 these farmers on average increased their net worth and farm profits in spite of trends of decreasing growing season rainfall and higher average daily temperatures leading to more evaporation during the growing season. However, there are limits to how far current strategies for dealing with climate variability can go to help our farmers adapt to climate change and there are serious risks in continuing along this path in the face of a long-term shift in conditions.

The main point here is that we have to start to act now and put a serious amount of effort and Aussie ingenuity-together with the scientific expertise of CSIRO and our agricultural researchers, backed up by rural industry RDCs-into turning this issue around to maintain productivity and growth in our agricultural sectors. We can do this if we put serious effort and serious resources into this now. It is urgent that we act now because of the serious time lag involved in applying research and development. We need five, 10 or 15 years, depending on the particular issue. For example, if we were developing a new species to produce in agriculture, we would need to identify it, develop productive varieties, adapt it to meet regional needs, develop the process machinery, integrate it into profitable farming systems and enterprises, set up the regional demonstration initiatives, make information resources available to farmers et cetera.

But we no longer have that amount of time. Ten or 15 years ago, when we first started talking about the impact of climate change, we probably had the time, but the issue was not seen then to be pressing enough to get it into the political will. Unfortunately, however, a lot of people are now suffering from the impacts of climate change-before we have seriously addressed this issue. We now know for sure that a head-in-the-sand approach will only make the issue harder and more expensive to deal with. There is a real risk that if governments and their agencies send out the message that this is just a passing blip-that this is just a one-in-a-thousand-year drought that will soon break and that we will soon return to business as usual-farmers will push on, trying to make a go in areas that are becoming increasingly marginal. They will either lose money on crops that fail or their capital will erode while they try to keep up with their interest payments and see out the drought. All the while, they are losing the capacity to make the change and invest in diversifying or transforming their farm enterprises.

This is why it is most important that we put out and gather accurate and relevant information on the changes, the risks and the options for adaption and support. It is not just farmers who are affected, which is why we have included the impact on communities in the terms of reference for this inquiry. There is likely to be a substantial knock-on effect on rural businesses and towns of a long-term drop in farm productivities and returns. Climate change may seriously threaten the security of water supplies to many rural towns, and competition will drive up the cost of water for all users. Less water and higher production costs, together with climate impacts on farm productivity, will impact on the price of food domestically and on the value of our agricultural exports-hence, on interest rates and the economy. Doing nothing about climate change is likely to hurt the economy more. Then there are the impacts on the environment. As farming zones become increasingly marginal, there is a growing risk that farming enterprises will have more impact on the environment.

We already have fragmented landscapes in our agricultural areas, and we have spent a great deal of time and resources in Australia trying to address this issue. We have been fencing, protecting and linking remnants. We also know that there are many threatened species in some of our farming areas. In the agricultural zone in Western Australia, refuges for the last remaining numbers of species have been identified but they will not be able to be shifted quickly enough to cope with the impact of climate change.

We do not know where we need to link remnants that will allow these species to move.
We need to identify those areas. We must also look at the combination of climate change and other degradation impacts-for example, salinity. This is particularly important in my home state of Western Australia. Much of our current agriculture systems are based on longstanding Mediterranean systems that, over the years, have been adapted as much as they can be to Australian conditions. Ultimately, there has been a reliance on species that are not well adapted to the variability of our climate and the ancient nature of our soils. This has placed limits on our productivity zones, which are shifting, and our farmers have had to learn to manage the risk that a bad season presents. Western Australian farmers have learned to cope with our variable climate by using a range of strategies that include diversification, selection, opportunistic cropping and conservation practices such as stubble retention and, of course, no till.

Current adaption responses also include: developing improved varieties to cope with heat shock; staggering planting times; sowing a range of varieties, combining more hardy and more productive lines; better timing of cropping operations to suit the weather; and choosing crop varieties and inputs based on seasonal forecasts. The point here is that Australian farmers have adopted a range of strategies to cope with the variable climate. These practices have enabled our farmers to adapt to a point, and farmers have done so for over a decade with climate change, but the point is that there are limits as to how far they can go, and there is a risk that they will run down their resources, both capital and farm productivity, in the longer term.

Economic modelling suggests that broadacre farmers who rely on current technologies and enterprise options to deal with the climate becoming warmer and dryer will in the longer term see a marked drop in farm profits, greater areas devoted to pasture and less to cropping, fewer tactical alterations of cropping and pasture areas from year to year, lower stocking rates, more supplementary feeding and more areas allowed for perennial plants. However, the research shows that farmers could adapt to this likely change in climate and, if they do, farming profits could decline by 50 per cent or more, and less grain would be produced. This clearly demonstrates that the adverse climatic change is likely to reduce farmers' financial capacity to adapt and adopt because of the impact it has on farm returns; in other words, if they stick with the same process of gradual adaptation, it might run down the farm enterprise and they will no longer be able to adapt. There is a limit under the current circumstances as to where farmers can adapt.

Over time, weathering a series of bad years can have the consequences of eroding farm capital and building up farm debt, which reduces the amount that farmers are able to invest in adaptation. This is problem No. 1, and it is here that it is crucial to provide accurate information to farmers about the likely impacts of adaptation strategies. Problem No. 2 is that adaptation responses and scenarios I have described so far rely on climate change being gradual. If the rate of climate change is slow enough, then varietal development and innovation in agronomy and management can cushion the adjustment costs and reduce the projected decline in farm profits. However, if we have hit a climate tipping point, which many of us feel we have, if things get dramatically worse over a few short years, if we pursue a head-in-the-sand approach, if we do not undertake the R&D necessary and do not share and employ adaptation strategies, then the whole of our agricultural zone is at serious risk. Our farmers, backed up by Australian agricultural research, are arguably the most capable in the world at taking up new technologies and managing climate risks but they need the tools, the information and the support to do that.

We need to undertake an audit to find out where we are up to: what programs are in place, how they are progressing, where the gaps are, and whether our current efforts are anywhere near enough to allow us to respond effectively within the narrowing window of opportunity. We need far more resources, climate modelling and data to enable us to do this. We need to put the same sort of effort and resources into measuring, analysing and modelling our water, land and atmosphere as the US and the EU have put in over the last few years. Farmers in the US can now get a six-week forecast at the level of their farm that tells them with a good degree of accuracy what to expect.

CSIRO's Water Resources Observation Network is a move in the right direction. But, while CSIRO can theoretically build this system, unless the states and the agencies are prepared to share their data and sign off on a common data and access protocol, we will go nowhere. Then there is the Bureau of Rural Sciences new National Agricultural Monitoring System-another good step in the right direction-as well as the National Water Commission's Australian Water Resource Information System and atmospheric and ocean monitoring and modelling systems such as the Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator. These are all steps in the right direction, but there is no overall strategy that connects them all.

Last month at the water policy initiatives inquiry of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Dr Bryson Bates, the director of the CSIRO climate change program, was asked about research into climate impacts. He said:
If you are talking about adaptation in the decades ahead, again this is where we run into this problem, if I can be blunt, where researchers in this country-and I am not just talking about CSIRO-are continually nickelled and dimed, chasing $50,000 contracts to look at the impact of climate change on the water supply in one catchment, for instance, when the real problem is exactly the sort of problem you have described. It is the issue of the sustainability of our rural communities and the rural environment.

We are not getting to that and we are not getting to that for a very good reason.

It is unfortunate that some of our leading scientists are still not being given the resources and the support that they need. We are approaching the climatic limits of our existing production systems in many areas. This is why I believe we need to undertake a detailed and extensive program of land suitability analysis straightaway and overlay it with our climate change models. We know that our climate is shifting and that what were once regarded as highly productive lands may in the future become marginal. I believe that it is unfair to our farmers, to our rural communities and to our environment to ignore this fact and to let it happen naturally without giving our farmers decision-making tools on which to base sound information.

We need to get serious about our research and development, and we need to get serious about the resources that need to be thrown at research and development. We need lead times. We need trials and demonstration initiatives in different areas. We need to look at native perennial crops that will adapt to our climate and our soils. We have made many strides in that area in Australia, but unfortunately there is no collective understanding of that information.
During the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee oil supply inquiry, it became obvious that the Department of Transport and Regional Services did not even know what research was going on in Australia into lignocellulose, an algae, as a potential biofuel. They knew more about what was going on in America than they did about what was going on here. Although we have the National Agriculture and Climate Change Action Plan 2006-2009, it is focusing on building resilience rather than on adapting to change. The terms of reference for this inquiry are to look at the long-term impacts of climate change on Australian primary producers, rural communities and the environment. We have no collective understanding. There has been no full analysis of it.

We need to look at potential adaptation strategies to mitigate these impacts to ensure security of Australian food production and to maintain the viability of our rural communities. This inquiry is not just about water; it is about agriculture. We need to acknowledge in this country the impacts of climate change and water on irrigated agriculture. But we also need to look at the future of our broadacre dryland agriculture, because it is not in a position to adapt to climate change-which is coming, and it is coming fast.

When we asked ABARE-our leading agriculture resources economists and forecasters-about the impacts of climate change, we heard that the only modelling they have done is on the supposed potential impact to the economy of making cuts to our greenhouse emissions. They have not modelled the impact of climate change on our farming enterprises, and there is no way yet-they told me in estimates-of combining the economic analysis and the science analysis modelling. We are failing our farmers if we do not start looking at this issue seriously and start looking at a framework.

[ Speeches by Senators Heffernan, Brown and Kirk ]

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (11.21 a.m.)-Once again we had the argument put that we should be thinking about going north, peddling false hope-at least that is the idea-to farmers of the south, that we will just gather the wagons together and head north. That is designed as a distraction from the fact that climate change is the biggest crisis facing our farmers, one that they urgently need to deal with. How can you expect farmers to be able to deal with this crisis without the support from both our state and federal governments, without gathering together every bit of scientific research that this country can gather and focus on this issue? I find it quite distressing, in fact, that the government does not seem to understand the impact that this is going to have on our farmers, and the depth of work that is needed. They seem to have no understanding of the impacts of climate change on our farmers and what is needed to address this issue.

They did not address in their reply the actual terms of reference for this inquiry, looking at the long-term impacts on primary producers and rural communities. That quite clearly comes as an also-ran in the government's thinking. They have only just acted, for example, to provide EC and drought assistance to small businesses in farming and rural communities-they were quite obviously forgetting that they are absolutely dependent on our farmers-and to look at the impacts on the environment.

There is one area they clearly want to ignore. Given the Prime Minister's statements about draining wetlands and about people coming first, he quite clearly still does not get the fact that you cannot support people without having a sustainable environment.

I bet you that he did not ask the farmers whether they thought that should happen-that is, whether the farmers agreed to draining wetlands. Do you know what? Not one farmer that I have spoken to supports draining wetlands. Maybe the Prime Minister should actually go and talk to farmers first before he starts bandying around ridiculous suggestions like that.

Obviously he also does not take into account that the government has spent and allocated lots of money-and I acknowledge this-to the environment through the National Heritage Trust. Billions of dollars have been spent in our farming communities on planting trees. What about the impact of climate change on those trees that have been planted, for example? What about the work that farming communities have done in protecting wetlands and the environment? What are the potential adaptation strategies? We are not just talking about-and I have been talking quite a bit about this-looking at research into developing more crops-we are also talking about adaptation strategies for rural communities and the environment. All of that needs to be looked at. There is nobody pulling that together. Nobody is putting that thought in.

As I touched on earlier, ABARE is not even thinking about it. The only instruction they have been given by government is to look at what the costs are to our economy of making cuts. They are not looking at what the impacts of climate change are on our agricultural systems, rural communities and the environment. None of that work has been done. So how can our farmers be making realistic decisions if they are not getting that information support?

My colleague Senator Brown touched earlier on the question of who is driving the action. What we heard before is: 'No more inquiries-let's have some action.' Who is driving the action? The Prime Minister called a summit on three or four days notice, weeks and months after the warning signals for this season were that our storages would be drying up. They called it so late that farmers growing summer crops had already started getting ready and watering their fields to prepare to sow their summer crops. If action had been taken earlier, they would not have been wasting that water. The Prime Minister then, maybe, would not have come out and suggested that we had to drain our wetlands to support our towns. Just when is this action happening and just who is doing it? I have seen none of it so far, that is for sure.

If you look at what farmers are saying about action for climate change, I actually think that the government has not been listening to them. Let me just read to you a bit of what the National Farmers Federation have said to the Commonwealth government. Their agriculture and land management working group said:

Australia's agriculture, forestry and land management interests are exposed to the impacts of climate change. Compounding our risk exposure, the agriculture sector is not equipped, at present, with sufficient detailed information about the impact of climate change on different regions and different types of farming activity. Given the extent of this vulnerability, there is an urgent need to enhance understanding of the likely impacts of climate change at a scale relevant to sectors and regions ...

They also said that there is an urgent need to understand the social, economic, and biophysical implications of climate change on this sector and to develop adaptive responses accordingly. The Queensland Farmers Federation this year, in its 2006-07 election issues paper, said:

Adaptation to climate change is the biggest challenge facing Australian agriculture in the next 20 to 30 years ... Like all changes, a changing climate brings both risks and opportunities. Those who better understand the nature and implications of the change can adapt more effectively to avoid the risks and seize the opportunities.

They go on to say:

Agriculture is arguably the most seriously affected sector of the State economy in terms of climate change effects. Yet there has been little investment by the State in identifying the impacts of climate change for farmers, or in preparing farmers for adaptation or mitigation strategies.

And they call for the following:

 a research program to develop regional and industry scenarios for climate change in industry and likely threats and opportunities for industry;
 follow research to identify new plant varieties and farming practices that might be better suited to climate change ...
 raising awareness about and voluntary on-farm adoption of measures to address issues of climate adaptation, greenhouse gas abatement and the identification of new opportunities for rural industries;
 research in terms of mitigation effects and adaptation techniques.

So our farming organisations are saying that there is not enough being done and they need help to identify and address the impacts and to look at adaptation strategies.
There has been other work recently released that I think also impacts in this area. For example, the Productivity Commission last week released a report on research and development in this country and raised some concerns about the focus being on commercialisation and not enough on public benefit. I think part of this inquiry looking at adaptation strategies would also look at how we are handling research development in this country and whether we are putting enough emphasis on the development of, for example, adaptation strategies and the appropriate crops that are needed.

There is work being done in this country. For example, the salinity CRC, based in my home state but operating across Australia, has done a great deal of work in this area. Do we need to upscale that work? Do we need to invest more money? I would argue that we do-but we certainly need to look into that.

As I said earlier, we have no framework. We have no overall view in Australia of what research is being done and where it is being done-and what research is not being done. We certainly do not have an understanding of the land use capability in this country and have not overlaid that on our climate change models to help farmers-for example, those in the eastern wheat belt of Western Australia-to identify just what their future options are. They are facing decreased rainfall and increasing temperatures. How do we help them to make decisions about staying on farm? Is it appropriate that we as a community offer them financial support for ecosystem services?

I for one do not want to see farmers walking off the land. I want to ensure that they can stay there if possible. Perhaps we can provide them with ecosystem services and look at what else they can do to stay there. We need to ask what areas are marginal because, in the future, we might need to consider, for example, phasing out farming in some areas, but we want that to happen in an orderly fashion. We do not want people to suffer. We do not want to provide false hope that farmers can pack up and move north.
As I articulated in this place last night, there are many problems with the so-called 'developing the north' option, as if the north is some empty, final frontier that we can develop. It is not appropriate to offer false hope to the farmers of the south by saying: 'It's okay, you can move north. We don't need to worry about you.' If we truly care about our farmers and the future of our rural communities, we will be looking beyond just their resilience. There is a National Agriculture and Climate Change Action Plan, but it is based around resilience-as if farmers can just keep slowly adapting to climate change. Farmers have been doing that. But they can no longer continue to gradually adapt, because their farm profitability will go down and they will therefore not have the resources to carry out the bigger adaptation that will be needed. We are offering these people the false hope that they might be able to continue the same old same old in areas where that will no longer be possible.
We need to look further ahead and offer long-term solutions, but we cannot do that if we do not know what the possible impacts are. There has been no overall study of the impacts of climate change on our rural producers, our rural communities or our environment. We need to start looking at a full and comprehensive range of those impacts and at our adaptation strategies for them. Climate change requires us to take a quantum leap in the way that we look at these impacts, how we manage our water resources, what we offer-for example, exceptional circumstances and drought assistance-how we encourage innovation to deal with drought and how we manage our farming systems.

We need to look beyond just increasing the resilience of our existing systems to developing new agricultural industries, probably based on native perennials and other crops. We need to open our minds to this, but we certainly will not be doing that through the existing processes. That is why the Greens believe that we need an inquiry to pull this information together so that we can look at what private researchers and the different agencies around the country are doing and at how we can share information. We cannot properly share information across the Murray-Darling Basin yet, let alone across Australia. Who is drawing those information sets together? Who is talking to the states about pulling it together? There is nobody doing that at the moment. How do we do it? How do we encourage states to share information? Those issues are not being addressed. We cannot take action if we do not know what we are actioning; therefore, we firstly need to pull this information together. I strongly encourage the Senate to support the establishment of this inquiry.

[ The motion to establish the committee was then put to a vote and defeated 33 votes to 31, with the Liberals and Nationals voting against the Greens, Democrats and Labor Party. ]

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