Trevor Hill stands knee-deep in water at the edge of his rice field. He reaches down with a weathered hand, plucks a green stalk, and carefully cuts a slit along the stem. He coaxes out the delicate strand of pale green rice kernels and then holds it up to the sunlight. It’s still more than two months to harvest time, but to his eye the crop looks good.
The rice fields on Hill’s farm in New South Wales, Australia, form an emerald expanse that stretches to the horizon—until you turn around. Across the dirt road, the land is brown and bare. In wetter times, he’d plant rice on nearly a third of his 412 hectares; this year he has enough water to irrigate just 44. Like many local farmers, he’s hired contractors to smooth out even the slightest variations in his fields’ topography, and he uses satellite imagery to diagnose the health of the soil, measures designed both to reduce water consumption and boost production.
After the harvest, he’ll sell the rice stubble to cattle farmers. On the water that remains in the ground he’ll sow a crop of oats or barley. Throughout the summer, his lambs will munch on weeds and grass along the banks of the rice paddocks; eventually he’ll auction them off for about AU $130 a head. And after all that, Hill will be lucky to break even this year.
His wife, Gerardine, grew up on this farm, reachable by gravel road about 15 kilometers from Griffith, the agricultural heart of central New South Wales. The couple has raised three children here. Their yellow-brick ranch house is cheerful and inviting, and a rose garden adorns the foot of the sloping yard. There are animals everywhere—chickens, ducks, two sheepdogs, and a chatty long-billed Australian cockatoo named Charlie. But the Hills are seriously thinking about moving on.
"I love this place, and I love farming," Gerardine says. "But I like what we used to do, not what we’re doing now." These days, the state government sends a mental-health worker to monthly meetings in town, a routine prompted by an uptick in suicides in the past few years.
Being a farmer has never been easy. And Australia has never been the easiest place to do it. It’s a largely dusty continent where droughts can span decades, only to give way in a day to torrential storms that can go on until the dams overflow. Even so, there’s no precedent for what’s been happening here. The last eight or nine years have been the driest since European settlement began two centuries ago. And it’s unlikely to get better anytime soon. Computer models predict [PDF, 5 MB] that in coming decades much of Australia will become hotter, windier, and drier.
Even ordinary Aussies are starting to sound a little panicked. A talk-radio caller lobbies for relocating the country’s agricultural center to Tasmania. A taxi driver in Sydney wonders why the government isn’t building a giant pipeline to pump water from the country’s tropical north to the arid south. A retired academic suggests floating huge freshwater-filled balloons along the eastern seaboard to replenish depleted waterways.
The Australian government has responded to its water woes with a raft of big projects. Its 10-year, $12.9 billion (US $11.8 billion) "Water for the Future" plan, whose aim is to "prepare Australia for a future with less water," includes $5.8 billion to modernize irrigation infrastructure. [Note: All figures in this article are in Australian dollars.] The program should save millions of megaliters of water but will burn many more megawatts, too. That’s because water-saving techniques like drip irrigation and pressurized pipelines carry a stiff energy penalty.