Environmental Challenges. A river ran through it – Part 2

Level: Upper-Intermediate / Advanced

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

This is a continuation of the passage on climate change (see Part 1).

  1. The River Murray used to be compared to America’s Mississippi. During the 19th century, paddle steamers were a familiar sight along its lazy green-grey currents, ferrying goods from town to town. Covering an area of more than one million km2, the Murray basin carries water from the tropical north in Queensland to the Darling River, and from the Murray’s source in the Snowy Mountains to the outskirts of Adelaide, 1,500 miles downstream.
  2. Nearly 60 years ago, the Snowy Hydro scheme was opened. The scheme promised to provide a reliable supply of water to the Murray. The dry, fertile country to the west was transformed into dairy pastures, orchards and lush rice fields. Years of over-allocation for irrigation, as well as drought, has resulted in a pitifully low stream level. In June 2006, the catchment area received an inflow of 700 gigalitres. A year later, it had plummeted to 300 gigalitres. (One gigalitre is 1,000,000,000 litres.)
  3. Some people question whether climate change is the cause. Louise and Andrew Burge are farmers but they refute evidence that the current drought is driven by climate change. They showed me a series of old photographs showing the Murray in drier conditions than now. ‘Global warming represents a herd mentality with a herd mentality for the solutions,’ she said.
  4. According to a UN report, per capita, Australia’s emissions of greenhouse gases are among the highest in the world. As the drought bites, the conflict between farmers, traditionally portrayed as rampant land-clearers, and environmentalists, is brought to the fore. In reality, while all the farmers I spoke to were global warming sceptics, they were passionate conservationists. Many farmers argue that the current drought is very similar to that of the 1890s and 1940s.
  5. Nonetheless, the effect on rural towns all along the Murray is acute. Figures from the Reserve Bank reveal that rural debt has doubled from £10bn in 1999 to £20bn in 2005. In Deniliquin, 20 minutes from the Burges’ farm, the wide streets are eerily quiet. That evening, in the empty Federal Hotel, I meet Wayne Cockayne, a 44-year-old whose eyes stare into the mid-distance. ‘This town’s gone backward,’ he says, taking a sip on a Diet Coke. ‘In 1979, when I left school, the town was prospering. Now farmers’ children are leaving the land.’
  6. For the past four years, Cockayne hasn’t made a cent from the cereals on his 3,000-acre property 20 miles south of Deniliquin. This year he had to pay for water to be trucked in to flush his toilet. He grits his teeth. ‘I know about depression,’ he goes on. ‘I locked myself in at home for four days. Then I got in the family car and drove into town. A friend found me slumped over the steering wheel crying. I never thought I’d be a person who would suffer from it.’
  7. ‘In the first seven years, I had, on average, two people a year from the farming community who presented with depression,’ Dr Harry von Rensburg tells me in his surgery in Barham, 60 miles west of Deniliquin. This year he is ‘actively managing’ more than 120 farmers, including some of the most high-profile landowners in the district. A psychologist comes once a week and has back-to-back appointments. ‘If we could get her twice a week we would fill that.’ A national mental health report stated that one farmer commits suicide in Australia every four days. I ask Dr Von Rensburg whether this figure is accurate.
  8. ‘Absolutely. In the past three years there have been eight suicide attempts here. A handful are on suicide watch – their spouses or children have taken control of firearms.’ He leans back in his big black chair. ‘Shooting is the most favoured method; second is hanging.’ Von Rensburg puts this dramatic increase down to the drought’s longevity and the uncertainty it brings. ‘People are asking themselves, will this be ongoing? Are we going to see our landscape change? Will we survive?’
  9. Neil Eagle is another farmer who questions climate change. He is the grand old man of orchard farming in the region, a sprightly 73-year-old with large, dirt-encrusted hands and a deep, rumbling voice. He refuses to be beaten. Eagle’s family has been living around Eagle Creek since 1870. ‘As far as temperature changes go, in the Forties and Fifties it was definitely hotter than it is now,’ he says. ‘I don’t agree with the doom and gloom merchants that the sea is going to rise.’ He gives a wry smile. ‘It’s become nearly a religion, this idea of global warming.’
  10. But some 300 miles west of Eagle Creek, in South Australia, Anne Jensen is witnessing a collapse of entire ecosystems on the floodplains. In the Nineties, one local from Kingston-on-Murray described this as a ‘garden of Eden’ for river red gums, some 400 years old. Today it resembles a graveyard. Jensen sees the ‘hundreds of thousands of trees’ dying in the Lower Murray as ‘a combined effect of a man-made drought in the river system, together with the severe natural drought which is proving to be the last straw’.
  11. The twisted, ashen-grey branches of the black box eucalyptus and river gums are stark indicators of the region’s deteriorating health. These hardy trees require natural flooding to survive. They have done without a decent drink for over a decade. ‘If we got a flood in the next two to three years we could save the river, but only with enormous amounts of rain.’
  12. A mile from Kingston is Banrock Station. More famous for its crisp white wines than its pioneering conservation strategies, this vineyard pumps profits back into restoring the local wetlands. It has had considerable success, but due to the minimal amount of water in the Murray allocated for the environment, and the rising salinity, they can only achieve so much.
  13. What has struck me is that if temperatures continue to rise globally, as predicted, what is happening now in Australia will occur in other regions where countries share one river system – the Euphrates in the Middle East, the Mekong in Asia. The World Bank estimates that by 2025, about 48 countries will experience water shortages, affecting more than 1.4bn people, the majority in under-developed regions. Here in Australia, at least the economy is robust and competing groups whose livelihoods depend on the dwindling flow of the Murray can sit down and talk. Where rivers cross borders, it won’t be a case of negotiating and compromise – it will be war.
  14. The future of many Australian farmers hangs in the balance. Last year the drought whittled 1% off the national economy, and this year reduced the available annual milk supply by more than a billion litres. During Australia’s winter, the blistering summer is still several months away. But Professor Mike Young warns that already ‘Adelaide is in a very frightening situation. If it doesn’t rain and the dams don’t fill, there isn’t enough water in the system to supply the city.’

Learning activities for Part 2

Activity 1 – before listening/reading

Assuming that global warming is happening, how do you believe it could affect you in the next 20 years? Work in pairs and then report on what you have discussed.

Activity 2 – listening activities

1. If possible, listen to a recording of the first 5 paragraphs. Listen out for this information.

a) What used to be seen on the Murray River?

b) What’s a gigalitre?

c) What do Louise and Andrew Burge not believe?

d) What two groups are in conflict?

e) What has happened to farmer debt?

2. Play the tape again listen out for words that mean the same as:

a) changed completely

b) fell very dramatically

c) reject

d) uncontrolled

e) very serious

f) strangely and worryingly

3. What evidence has the Burge family got against climate change?

4. Why is Wayne Cockayne unhappy?

Activity 3 – Reading

  1. Scan the text to find references to the following:
    • 300 gigalitres
    • UN report
    • rampant land-clearers
    • passionate conservationists
    • depression
    • 120 farmers
    • every four days
    • 1870
    • 400 years old
    • Banrock Station
    • 48 countries
    • a billion litres
  2. Read the text carefully. What examples of metaphor can you find in those paragraphs?
  3. Does Dr Von Rensburg have enough support?
  4. What does Neil Eagle mean when he says ‘It’s become nearly a religion, this idea of global warming’ (para. 9).
  5. When it comes to sorting out climate problems over water, what advantage does Australia have over some other areas of the world?

Activity 4 – Exploration of language

1. Look at these sentences; the first is from the text:

  • A national mental health report stated that one farmer commits suicide in Australia every four days.
  • The headteacher said that pupils are not allowed to smoke.
  • The government stated that a man dies of lung cancer every 30 minutes.

Notice the use of both the Past Simple and the Simple Present in this sentence.

Now make up sentences of your own using this combination of sentences.

2. What is meant by ‘a wry smile‘ (para. 9)? In what other ways can we describe a smile? Divide them into two groups: honest smiles and others.