Environmental Challenges. A river ran through it – Part 1

Level: Upper-Intermediate / Advanced

This adapted newspaper article is used in the questions and learning activities that follow.

This passage on climate change is continued in Part 2.

If you have access to a recording of the passage, you should listen to it several times before reading the text and answering the written questions.

  1. The Murray is the lifeblood of Australia’s farming country, a legendary river that once thundered 1,500 miles from the Snowy Mountains to the Southern Ocean. Now, it’s choking to death in the worst drought for a thousand years, sparking water rationing and suicides on devastated farms. But is this a localised national emergency, or a warning that the Earth is running out of water?
  2. Australian farmers pride themselves on their resilience. They take pleasure in living in a sun-burnt country of droughts and violent rain storms. Conservative and deeply sceptical, many dismiss global warming as hogwash. But with unprecedented water scarcity and the Murray , the country’s greatest river system, on the verge of collapse, warning bells are ringing around the globe.
  3. Financially, the drought is affecting places as far away as the UK , pushing up the cost of bread in British supermarkets as wheat prices reach a 10-year high. Scientists are looking on nervously, wondering if what is happening in Sydney could be the future for other towns and cities around the world.
  4. Professor Tim Flannery, an Australian environmental scientist and an international leader on climate change, has no doubts. ‘ Australia is a harbinger of what is going to happen in other places in the world,’ he says. ‘This can happen anywhere. China may be next, or parts of western USA . There will be emerging water crises all over the world.’ In Kenya , the herdsmen of the Mandera region have been dubbed the ‘climate canaries’ – the people most likely to be wiped out first by global warming. In Australia , the earth’s driest inhabited continent, it is the farmers who are on the frontline.
  5. This extended dry spell began in 1998. Four years later came the once-in-100-years drought. Last year was declared a once-in-a-millennium event. Every city, except for Darwin , is facing water restrictions. Rivers are reduced to a trickle a child can jump across. Old Adaminaby, a town drowned by a reservoir 50 years ago, has resurfaced from its watery grave. Distressed koalas have been drinking from swimming pools. The list goes on.
  6. The extent of the crisis was illustrated in January, when the Prime Minister, John Howard, announced a £4.5bn package to take control of the Murray-Darling basin, the nation’s food bowl, accounting for 41% of Australia ‘s agriculture and £9bn worth of agricultural exports. The region covers an area the size of France and Spain combined, and is home to almost 3 million people. But its famous waterway, the River Murray, no longer holds sufficient water to flow out into the sea. Despite Howard’s massive rescue plan to overhaul the water system, six months later the irrigation taps to the region’s farmers were turned off.
  7. In March 2006, Professor Flannery’s The Weather Makers was published in the UK , spelling out in detail what awaits us unless we decarbonise our world by 2050. He has been described by Sir David Attenborough as ‘in the league of the all-time great explorers’, and he was the 2007 Australian of the Year. Floods and violent storms have caused havoc along Australia ‘s eastern seaboard, beaching one 40,000-tonne tanker like an aluminium dinghy. I put it to Flannery that the difficulty with global warming is that many areas are facing freak flooding. ‘General modelling suggests that every degree Celsius of warming leads to a 1% increase in rainfall globally,’ he explains. ‘But these downpours are not spread evenly, causing intense bursts and downpours of rain in some places and not in others. We are learning about this 1% effect as we go.’
  8. In his book, Flannery describes the dramatic decline in winter rainfall in southwestern Australia since the Sixties. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has forecast that on the east coast, rainfall could drop by 40% by 2070, along with a steep rise in temperature and an increased chance of bush fires. Last November, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report added to the predicted misery, stating that ‘the annual flow in the Murray-Darling basin is likely to fall by 10-25% by 2050’, resulting in a decline in production from agriculture and forestry.
  9. Five years ago, during the last major drought, I travelled through western Queensland, across a fragile, red-baked landscape that was obviously not suited to the hooves of millions of cattle and sheep (there are no Australian native animals with cleft hooves) and met farmers whose dreams were crumbling to dust. Back then, there was virtually no mention of global warming. The problem was attributed to the dry, cyclical conditions caused by El Nino, a powerful climatic event linked to the Pacific Ocean , which drives rain-bearing clouds away from the continent.
  10. Fast-forward to July 2007 and few scientists doubt the ‘big dry’ is caused, in part, by climate change. Some refer to it as a climate shift; others, like Flannery are unequivocal that it is a foretaste of what’s to come. As the first developed nation to experience such a prolonged dry spell, it’s no wonder that the rest of the world is looking on to see how Australia copes – and what lessons can be learned.
  11. What is remarkable is the swing among ordinary Australians over the past 12 months. The release of the Stern Report by British economist Sir Nicholas Stern and a rise in food prices have combined as a loud wake-up call. Now, as the stress of trying to squeeze every drop out of an over-stretched waterway threatens to tear communities apart, fierce public debate has forced the environment to the forefront of this year’s general election. In order to avoid water shortages, two massive desalination plants will be built in Victoria and NSW, following the construction of Perth ‘s successful de-salination plant. The government also announced it would ban incandescent light bulbs, which contribute to greenhouse gases.
  12. For Flannery, these are baby steps. ‘We could be the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy. We’ve got solar potential; we’ve got a geo-thermal province in central Australia and the best potential for wind power off the east coast.’ For Anne Jensen, an academic who’s been studying the ecology of the lower Murray in South Australia for 25 years, it’s a question of priority. ‘Everyone is fighting to keep what they’ve got in a situation where people are going to need to give something up,’ she says. ‘While everyone is on rations, we have to make sure that the river is healthy enough to support us all.’

Adapted from an article by Claire Scobie in The Observer newspaper.

Part 1

Activity 1 – before listening/reading

1. Write the words climate change and add any words or expressions that you associate with this expression.

2. Do you believe that climate change is happening? What do you think are the causes of climate change?

3. Do you think everyone (around the world) is in agreement about the concept of climate change? Who is not in agreement, and why?

4. Where do you think climate change is having the most impact at the moment, and in what ways?

5. Try to find pictures (newspapers/Internet/magazines) illustrating:

  • drought
  • flooding
  • high temperatures
  • glaciers receding
  • ice-floes melting
  • animals suffering
  • higher prices in shops
  • coral dying
  • old people suffering in high temperatures (e.g. in France).

6. Working with a friend, prioritise them in terms of their importance and discuss your reasons.

Activity 2

1. If possible, listen to a recording of the first five five paragraphs for the overall or general meaning.

2. Listen a second time and note down answers to these questions with a word or phrase:

  • Which river is being described?
  • Where is it?
  • What is happening to it?
  • Do the farmers agree that climate change is happening?
  • What other country is being affected by these problems in Australia ?
  • Who is Professor Tim Flannery?
  • What are drinking in swimming pools?

You may need to listen to the recording more than once.

3. If possible, discuss the answers with a partner.

4. Make a note of a word or words that mean the same as:

  • dying
  • doubtful / unwilling to believe
  • rubbish / nonsense
  • fearfully
  • bringer of bad news
  • labelled
  • a very small flow of water
  • an area where water is stored

5. Try to answer these questions.

  • What has happened to the Murray River ?
  • What are two immediate results of the drought? (water rationing / suicides)
  • What important question is being asked?
  • What are scientists worried about?
  • What does Tim Flannery believe is going to happen in the future?
  • What is every city in Australia facing?
  • What’s happened to Old Adaminaby?

6. Read the first five paragraphs carefully.

  • What dramatic (journalistic?) language is used by the writer in Para 1?
  • How would you describe Australian farmers in your own words?
  • What does the farmers are on the frontline mean?
  • Where can we find climate canaries? What does this expression mean?

Activity 3 – Scanning

Scan the text and find the significance of these figures and expressions:

  • £4.5bn
  • 41%
  • £9bn
  • an area the size of France and Spain combined
  • 3 million people
  • March, 2006
  • 1%
  • drop by 40% by 2070
  • 10-25% by 2050

Activity 4 – Use these words to complete the sentences.

legendary devastated resilience sceptical unprecedented verge overhaul havoc freak fragile cyclical unequivocal prolonged

  • The ancient vase was very ……… and we were afraid that it would break.
  • The small town was ……… by the violent storm and took years to recover.
  • The floods caused ……… in the region and thousands of houses were destroyed.
  • The ……… nature of the weather meant that the heavy rain fell every second year.
  • Despite all the problems the family faced they were able to overcome them because of their ……… .
  • He was ……… in his view of what was best for the country and he asserted his views strongly at every meeting.
  • When he saw the ………, folksinger in his town, he could hardly believe his eyes.
  • I was very ……… about what he said and didn’t altogether believe him.
  • The long and painful operation ……… his life, but not for many months.
  • We had never seen anything like it; his actions were ……… .
  • They had to ….. the machinery completely before the start of the new year to make sure that it worked properly.
  • The team was on the ……… of making many new discoveries when their funding was cut and they were forced to stop.
  • The weather was unlike anything we had seen before and the ……… storms that came that year destroyed many trees in our orchard.

Activity 5 – Intensive reading

Read the text carefully and answer these questions.

  • Why is the Murray-Darling basin so important?
  • What the two main effects of climate change in Australia ?
  • What was the major difference the writer found between 2002 and 2007 on visits to Australia ?
  • How is this crisis affecting politics?
  • What immediate steps has the government taken to alleviate the problems?
  • Do you think that Flannery is angry? What evidence is there?

Activity 6 – Discussion questions

What do you know about El Nino (El Niño)?

What do you know about the Stern Report.

Activity 7 – Exploration of language

1. There are a number of examples of metaphor in the text; for example:

  • the lifeblood of Australia’s farming country

How many others can you find?

2. Explain the meeting of these following:

  • Para. 2: … pride themselves on their resilience.
  • Para. 7: … like an aluminium dinghy.
  • Para. 7: We are learning about this 1% effect as we go.
  • Para. 12: While everyone is on rations …