Australia has water troubles.

For at least the past nine years, the people "down under" have been experiencing perhaps the worst drought of their history, the "Big Dry," as they're calling it.

The drop in rainfall and river flows has been most severe in the southern and eastern states (Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, and parts of Queensland), which happen to house the majority of Australians and also the country's major agricultural centers. Dry days—dry decades, in fact—are also dogging Western Australia's major city, Perth.

Australia, with its approximately 22 million people, has by some estimates the planet's 15th largest economy. But the current drought has abruptly reminded Australians of the limits that natural resources and climate place on human activity.

Although rains this past winter have done their part to mitigate the worst of the drought, over the last decade city residents have been placed on stringent water-use restrictions in an effort to reduce daily consumption: gardens have gone unwatered and people showered with buckets to catch the water for other uses.

Even with the strictest of limitations in place, the threat that the water could run out confronted each of Australia's cities. In 2007, word in Brisbane was that without sufficient rain, the city would run dry in 2009. The same year, the people of Adelaide were told that "critical human needs" might not be met in the future.

To make matters worse, thirsty animals have been barging their way into human settlements. Snake bites are on the rise in Victoria and New South Wales as venomous snakes across southeastern Australia have slithered to urban areas in search of water. In November 2009, about 6,000 camels overran the outback town of Docker River in the Northern Territory (pop. 350) in search of water, head-butting water tanks, trampling fences, and licking water from air conditioning units.

If the urban areas have found their lifestyles cramped, the agricultural sector has been devastated by the drought. Irrigation farmers who specialize in "thirsty" but highly profitable crops like rice and cotton have been especially hard hit.

By 2008, rice growing came to a standstill, falling 98% across the country. The rice mill in Deniliquin (New South Wales), which alone used to produce rice for as many as 20 million people around the world, shut its doors. The result was a global shortage, with world rice prices doubling and violent food protests erupting across the globe.

Pastoral livestock farmers have also suffered. "I can't stand lying in bed every night and hearing the cattle bellow from hunger," lamented dairy farmer Malcolm Adlington in 2009 to a National Geographic reporter.

Not long ago, Anna Creek in South Australia was home to the planet's largest cattle station—24,000 square kilometers, larger than Israel—but now there are few cattle left. Most have been sold off, but carcasses of the less fortunate dot the landscape.

And the price tag for this agricultural breakdown has been high for the Australian government: several billon dollars in drought relief to rural areas since 2001.

To make matters worse, Australia's fragile ecosystems are also in crisis. The most important river system, the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), is suffering severe environmental distress. The Basin covers 14% of Australia and produces 40-45% of all of Australia's agriculture (A$14 billion/year).

All through the catchment, wetlands have disappeared to disastrous results. Today, 75% of the long-lived, majestic River Red Gum trees are considered dying or stressed, and the birds and fish that relied on the river's water to breed are failing.

In recent years, as more and more water has been diverted for human usage, the Murray has dried up before reaching the sea. The extreme drop in fresh water has raised the salinity levels of the vibrant coastal ecosystem known as the Coorong and two nearby lakes, Albert and Alexandrina. Wholesale changes in flora and fauna are underway and, in the case of Albert, the receding water has exposed acid sulphate soils to the air producing poisonous sulfuric acid across large segments of the dry lakebed.

The drought, along with record high temperatures and strong winds, has also helped to spark bushfires. Black Saturday (February 7, 2009) saw ferocious wildfires tear through the state of Victoria, killing as many as 200 and reducing more than a million acres to ashes. It was Australia's worst peacetime disaster.

And the wildfires will make the drought worse. The new trees that grow up in the place of the burned-out forests require more water to thrive than do mature ones. With more of the precious rainfall diverted directly into the roots of these young saplings, there is less that flows into the rivers to then be used by humans, animals, and plants downstream. Like much in nature, the drought is a self-reinforcing event.

How, we should ask, has it come to all this?

Australia's water woes are, in part, a result of natural climate and hydrological rhythms that have characterized the continent for millennia (although transformed of late by climate change).

They are also the result of significant human meddling in the environment that has taxed the country's water and ecological systems to the point of collapse. Human transformations (especially through river regulation and irrigation) have intensified the extent of the drought while limiting the choices Australians have to alleviate its worst effects.

Australia is hardly alone in their water troubles. Much of the planet finds itself these days confronting serious water issues of one sort or another. In this way, Australia is likely to play the role of canary in the coalmine. The successes and failures of Australians to confront the Big Dry will be lessons that the rest of the world will ignore at its peril.

"A Sunburnt Country …. Of droughts and flooding rains"

Australia is no stranger to drought, as these words of 19th-century poet Dorothea Mackellar remind us. It is the driest inhabited continent (only Antarctica receives less annual rainfall) and the current drought is explained in great part by the cyclical (if unpredictable) rainfall patterns that have long typified Australian weather.

Droughts affect parts of Australia every few years and major droughts come at least once per generation. The Big Dry is one in a long series.

The Federation Drought (1895-1903)—so named because it coincided with Australia's birth as an independent and united nation—has long been considered the worst in Australian history. By 1902, Sydney's water supply was running out, and the New South Wales government declared a day for "humiliation and prayer" to bring rains. The number of sheep in the country was cut in half—from 91 million to 54 million—and almost 5 million cattle died. In 1903, horrifying dust storms raged.

Similar major droughts ravaged the landscape during the 20th century: in 1911-16, 1939-45, 1958-68, 1979-83, and 1997-98.

Australia is also no stranger to floods. Seasonal flooding causes as much as A$400 million a year in damages, and major floods appear on a regular basis. Just this March, southwest Queensland experienced its worst flooding in a century.

Between droughts and floods, one of the most defining characteristics of Australia's climate and hydrologic structures is the extreme variability of rainfall: from year to year and seasonally.

Scientists generally argue that Australia's cycle of boom and bust rainfall is the result of processes in the neighboring Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans.

In particular, weather patterns in the South Pacific are crucial to the continent's climatic fortunes, especially El Niño events (which appear every 2-7 years and bring drought to southeastern Australia) and La Niña (rains and floods). Variations in air pressure in the tropical western Pacific (measured by the Southern Oscillation Index) and differences in sea temperature in the Indian Ocean (the Indian Ocean Dipole) are also driving forces of Australia's weather.

Australia is also characterized by high regional variation of rainfall, with 25% of the landmass receiving 75% of the precipitation. In fact, Australia has more water per capita than any other continent, but it all tends to come in huge batches and to land in parts of the country that are relatively unpopulated.

Australia is subject to significant drought for other reasons, including its latitude (with much of the country lying in the extremely dry belt between 15 and 35 degrees south of the equator) and its relative flatness (which means less rain and higher rates of evaporation).

Importantly too, Australia has the lowest run-off of any continent—that is, the lowest percentage of rainfall that actually makes its way into rivers, lakes, and other freshwater bodies: only 10% on average, compared to approximately 52% in North America, 48% in Asia, 39% in Europe, and 38% in Africa.

"Water Dreamers"

Yet, for all the variability built into Australia's climate and its propensity for drought, the current dry period is not simply an outcome of the continent's cyclical climatic patterns of wet and dry. It is also the result of what European settlers have done to transform and extensively regulate Australia's water flow since the First Fleet sailed into Sydney harbor in 1788. Through their history, Australians have often been, in the insightful phrasing of historian Michael Cathcart, "water dreamers."

The story of water during the opening days of Sydney's history unveils a pattern that has characterized much of Australian history since: the repeated, often desperate search for sufficient water; the enduring hopefulness that each new water source or hydro-engineering feat would "solve" the water problem; the boundless faith that they could make bounty pour forth from even the most arid lands; the ruination of ecosystems in the effort to redirect water; exploding costs for water projects that often produced unexpected and unwanted consequences; and tensions between private corporations and government officials, and between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples.

Over the centuries, animals and plants in Australia adapted to the arid, boom-bust cycles. The Aboriginal peoples—who arrived in Australia some forty to sixty thousand years ago—also developed their social, economic, migratory, and religious activities around the natural cycles of wet and dry.

By contrast, the Europeans who arrived in Australia were wetland people, and they had a hard time making sense of Australia's particular climate and hydrology. Instead of the water systems that they knew from Europe, they found "rivers that spread out into swamps then disappeared into huge reed beds; rivers that dried out, that went underground then reemerged further down the river bed; rivers that were salty; rivers that were chains of ponds; rivers that consisted of dry, sandy beds," as journalist Åsa Wahlquist has written.

The initial water supply in Sydney, the Tank Stream, quickly became a site of contention—and disastrously polluted—as local elites built houses next to the stream, into which they poured their sewage and the run-off from the pigs in their yards and their tanneries and other manufactories.

Those who could afford it paid water carters a handsome price to lug water for them from swamps at some distance from the settlement. As the water carters served primarily the rich, and any drinkable water became scarcer, local society came to argue that government authority needed to intervene to ensure water for all.

They turned to water sources farther afield. First came the Lachlan swamps about three kilometers from Sydney. Local officials planned to pipe water from the swamps to a central holding tank from which they would run water into the center of Sydney. Convicts were put to work building the water tunnel in a project that took substantially longer and cost a great deal more than planners had anticipated. Ultimately, the water was quickly squandered. No gate was included at the terminus, so the water simply poured out onto the streets. And very soon the swamps began to dry up, ending the water source and destroying the local ecology in the process. Then Sydney turned to the Botany swamps, with similar results.

The taking of these waters worsened already tense relations with the Aboriginal Cadigal people who had relied on these same waters for generations, and for whom the draining of marshes and the felling of trees was a spiritual and cultural affront as well as a threat to their existence.

The Water Seekers

Very soon after the initial Sydney settlement, the anxious if ever hopeful search for water intensified in scope. Through the early nineteenth century, there were a series of explorations—highly publicized, well funded, and ultimately fruitless—sent into the interior of Australia in search of a great river or an inland sea that would be the salvation of Australia.

Even in the face of thirst-induced deprivations, delusions, and occasionally death—and all manner of physical evidence to the contrary—these water explorers maintained a powerful, self-deluding optimism that the great river was just around the next corner (or over the next dune). Somehow or other the dryness would be conquered and a prosperous Eden would be created. The question was not if but when and how.

Leading Australians believed that if only a major river could be found, then the inevitable Golden Age of Australia would be attained. And they felt sure one must be out there. America had its Mississippi; Brazil its Amazon; China its Yangtze, how could it be possible that a continent as large as Australia would not have a similar river?

The absence of such a river, and the Europeans' inability to master Australia's waters, became linked in their minds with concerns about their colonial mission. Failure to find water, and failure to put this water to productive use, would entail a failure of Europeans to "civilize" the new continent. It would leave open the discomforting question—were they no better than the Aboriginal peoples who they chastised for not having developed "civilized" agricultural communities?

The line beyond which

The growth of Australia's population over the first half of the nineteenth century increased the demand for agricultural land, forcing Australians to confront the environmental limitations of their new continent. The battle between water idealists and realists was soon engaged.

During the drought of 1865, the Surveyor General of South Australia, G. W. Goyder, took extensive surveys of the native vegetation near Adelaide and determined a geographic line north of which it was no longer safe to practice agriculture.

In 1872, all land south of Goyder's line was officially opened to settlement, but the demand for land soon outstripped all good sense. Several very wet years in the 1870s lead settlers to push north, following the mantra that also helped propel people further West in the United States: "rain follows the plow." The government encouraged these people on. Goyder was ridiculed.

The drought years of the late 1870s and 1880s put an end to those dreams. The farmers packed up and moved south and east again, leaving behind ruined homesteads and ghost towns as monuments to their hopefulness and unrestrained confidence.

Their memory was short, however, and already by 1900 settlers had again moved their way north of the line, with predictable results of crop failure and destitution when the drought of 1914-17 hit. This time, however, the government stepped in to keep the farmers on this dubious land. The political pressures to find land for the growing population far outstripped the actual realities of sustainable crop cultivation.

The Engineers of Nature

As the dreams of the great inland river or sea desiccated in the failures of the Australian explorers—and as the truth of Goyder's line was made manifest—nineteenth-century advances in hydro-engineering once again fueled the Australian optimistic imagination and breathed new life into the water dreamers.

If an Australian Mississippi was not forthcoming, hope could be found in artesian groundwater and in the huge promise of irrigated agriculture.

Both of these required new technologies—machines to bore the ground for water and to build the dams and pipe systems to hold the water for irrigation—and trained engineers who would become the new high priests of nature change.

In these years, there was unlimited optimism in Australia that with these technological tools humans could transform and improve on what nature had provided. All too often, Australians believed, nature was inefficient and wasteful. Water often came at the wrong time, in the wrong quantities, and in the wrong places. Water that flowed through rivers to the sea was wasted. Every drop could and should be harnessed to human use. Droughts could be ended and floods controlled.

Artesian Waters

Over the nineteenth century, European settlers in Australia had noticed waters occasionally bubbling up from the ground—or more commonly had been led to these waters by Aboriginal guides. Now, with new drilling technologies coming in from Europe, the prospect of "unlimited" underground water gripped the settler community.

When drillers bored near Bourke in New South Wales in 1878, they stumbled upon the Great Artesian Basin, one of the largest groundwater supplies in the world (around 15,600 cubic miles of groundwater), which had been accumulating for millions of years. By 1915, more than 1,500 bores had been sunk in the Basin. The water flowed freely and seemingly endlessly, "bringing hope and comfort to the thirsty land again," as the famous bush poet Banjo Paterson wrote in his "Song of the Artesian Water."

Artesian waters opened thousands of square kilometers of arid, unproductive land for livestock. Adelaide, which had all but destroyed its nearby water supplies, was saved in the late 19th century by artesian water.

Water into Gold: The Alchemy of Irrigation

The faith in the power of civil engineering and human technology to improve on nature and to bring bounty to the population was even stronger in the case of irrigation and dam building.

As the nineteenth century progressed, it was becoming clearer to many settlers that water would need to be stored and regulated if agriculture was to have a chance to flourish and urban areas to receive a consistent supply of water.

There were years when the rains came nicely and Australians "forgot" earlier dry spells, but the intense drought years of 1877 and the 1880s convinced Australian capitalists and officials of the need for large-scale irrigation and damming.

While the necessity to combat drought was a driving force, there were also social, non-environmental reasons to work towards irrigated agriculture. Irrigation would build a more prosperous, populous, and egalitarian future for Australia. Opening up more land to farmers meant more opportunity for the poor, unemployed, and those without land. It would also allow more people to move to Australia, which was deemed necessary to defend Australia and to prevent Asian migration. And, of course, it would make some people rich.

Irrigation work began in earnest in the late 1880s, encouraged by the example of California. It started as a self-consciously private-capital venture, but by the early 20th century, state authorities stepped in to bail out failing irrigation trusts and take control of the irrigation process.