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
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
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. …