Climate Change Has Parched Aussie Farmers Looking North ; Scientists Predict That Rainfall in Australia's Agrarian South May Reduce by 15 Percent in the Coming Decades

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When the heavens open over the savanna flood plains and billabongs of northern Australia, it seems like it will rain forever. Great black storms march across the landscape, drenching the cattle ranches, national parks, and Aboriginal reserves which make up Australia's "Top End."

Thousands of miles to the south, however, in the most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria, the fields are parched, livestock are dying, and farmers face ruin as the worst drought in a century grinds on.

Two-thirds of Australia's freshwater flows down the great tropical rivers of the north, compared with less than five percent in the depleted waterways of the south.

It is hardly surprising, then, that a government task force this week will begin studying the prospects of encouraging Australia's farmers to bow to the harsh realities of drought and climate change, and head north. Critics, however, warn that the north's own climate peculiarities, lack of infrastructure, and indigenous land claims could make industrial-scale farming a risky venture.

"Northern Australia is one of the last agricultural frontiers left on the planet," says Bill Heffernan, a government senator who is presiding over the task force's $15.7 million budget. "Because of the way Australia was settled, it really hasn't been tapped."

Many older farmers will be reluctant to leave land their families have worked for generations, concedes Senator Heffernan, who has the ear of Prime Minister John Howard.

"But I'm talking about the young blokes, the guys in their 30s. I've got dairy farmers down in [the state of] Victoria ringing me up and saying: 'when can we go?' They're ready to move. It's a case of 'go north, young man.' "

Suffused with the pioneering spirit of the 19th century, this grand vision is backed by towns across the undeveloped north, a great belt of tropical savanna renowned for its lingering frontier feel, crocodile-choked swamps, and plain-talking locals.

"Someone needs to make a hard decision and say, 'Let's move the people to where the water is,' " John Wharton, an outspoken mayor from northern Queensland, said last month.

"One of the things [the government] should do is stop development in dry areas and say, 'you can't build here for the next five to 10 years.' "

Many farmers in the southern states of Victoria, South Australia, and New South Wales are battling their seventh consecutive year of drought. The mighty Murray and Darling rivers on which they have relied for decades are exhausted, dwindling to weed-tangled streams.

It's no wonder farmers are turning their eyes to the north, hatching dreams of opening up northern Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory to cotton, rice, and citrus fruits.

Proponents of the shift say the region's proximity to Asia - Darwin is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney or Melbourne - make it profitable to grow specialty vegetables, such as bok choi, for burgeoning Asian markets. …