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Century Worst Drought Au*

November 24, 2002

Ruinous Drought in Australia Is Called the Worst in 100 Years


YDNEY, Australia, Nov. 23 — Bill Hagarty once beat a drought by sending his 5,000 sheep on a six-month walkabout, feeding them on the grassy outcroppings along public roads, or what ranchers here call "the long paddock."

That was 20 years ago. Now Mr. Hagarty's 32,000-acre Rocks Station, 500 miles northwest of Sydney, is scorched again, but this time the drought has the entire country in its grip. Government officials are calling it Australia's worst drought in a century.

While waiting for rains that would revive his prairie, Mr. Hagarty, 68, has been forced to sell most of his sheep. There has been no rain for the last seven months, and only five inches — one-third the usual — for the entire year.

"I'm down to 300 sheep and about 3,000 'roos," Mr. Hagarty said, talking of an invasion by kangaroos fleeing even drier land. He said the drought was the worst he could recall in his 43 years working in the Brewarrina district, a vast sheep run noted for thoroughbred Merino herds that produce premium wool for export.

Sixty miles to the west, Wayne O'Malley and his wife, Patty, have 68,000 acres along the Darling River at Marion Downs, which in good years can support 8,000 sheep and 900 beef cattle.

Now, after the longest dry spell recorded there in 60 years, they have sold their herds down to core breeding stock, which they are feeding with trucked-in grain and hay at a cost of about $1,000 a week.

"We can manage a 12-month drought but this is much worse," Mr. O'Malley said. "We've had about 10 inches of rain in two years, one-third of the average. The river is almost dry, the dams are almost empty, nothing is growing and the kangaroos are digging up the grass roots."

Local cotton growers are even worse off than ranchers. With no river water for irrigation, they did not plant this year.

Irrigation of citrus fruits and table grapes has also stopped. "The whole economy has taken a big hit," Mr. O'Malley said.

The federal government's chief scientific adviser, Dr. Geoff Garrett, said the low rainfall over the last 18 months — 50 to 70 percent below average — amounted to "the most severe national drought in Australia in 100 years."

He and other officials warn that the "Big Dry" is likely to persist. Significant rain is not expected until April, after the decline of the current El Niño cycle, which is warming the ocean and affecting the climate in the Pacific Rim.

The Reserve Bank, Australia's central bank, says the drought's effect on farm production will reduce the country's 4 percent growth rate, currently the strongest among developed nations, to 3 percent by next year.

The government's agricultural economics agency estimates that grain and oil-seed harvests, which begin next month, will be about 20 million tons below last year's record 34 million tons.

Urban and coastal areas have not been spared.

Sydney just experienced its driest October since 1900, Melbourne has imposed restrictions on garden watering and car washing, and showers have been turned off on Queensland's surf beaches.

The beach resort of Byron Bay, bracing for a million visitors in December and January, midsummer here, is advising vacationers to bring their own drinking water.

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