Lessons learned from Australia’s epic drought may help the rest of the world

Not since the American Dust Bowl of the early 20th century has an industrialized nation sustained more damage from drought and water scarcity in its prime food-growing region than in Australia's Murray-Darling Basin, says an extensive multimedia report from Circle of Blue, the nonpartisan journalism and scientific research organization that covers global water issues.

"Climate change and the need to provide for a growing population have pushed the Murray-Darling Basin to its limits," said J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue's director. "Australia is used to dealing with drought, but the magnitude of what it faces in the Murray-Darling Basin is testing its ingenuity, stressing its budget and dispiriting many of its people."

Outside the country’s borders, the crisis was hardly known until last year, when Australia’s one-million-ton rice crop failed. The crop disaster wrecked the economies of Deniliquin and other rice-producing towns, and caused world food prices to rise, prompting food riots in poor nations. This year's fires put the drought at the top of the global news.

"Australia is at the vanguard of a major shift in how we as developed, agricultural nations thrive, survive or fail in coping with a much drier 21st century water environment," Ganter said. In "The Biggest Dry: Australia's Epic Drought is a Global Warning," Circle of Blue reports that the drought's effects - damage to food supplies, mass die-offs of plants and animals, and changes to the land that are pushing people out of their homes and aggravating tensions between government and aboriginal residents - are forcing the Commonwealth and four states to agree on new ways to govern in order to secure and manage water. Over $12 billion in public funds have been committed to modernize infrastructure and change growing techniques in order to conserve declining water supplies.

While the immediate reality may be grim for Australia and potentially the world, Circle of Blue finds resilient people rich with ideas and inquiry. That's why Imaginatik, the London- and Boston-based collaborative technology firm, and Circle of Blue are also launching Idea Central - a novel and powerful way for people to share their thoughts, experiences, suggestions and solutions about the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Imaginatik, developer of collaborative innovation and problem-solving software and processes, is providing its Idea Central software to bring together and organize Australia's and the world's best thinkers: from students to scientists, farmers to engineers, policy makers to indigenous peoples, in order to generate solutions. Idea Central, an advanced online tool that allows users to submit and share ideas and stories in realtime, is used by many of the world's leading multinational companies and universities to generate the highest level of creative problem solving.

Results, organizers say, will be valuable to people facing similar problems in other parts of the world. "With Idea Central, we tap into the power of many, the wisdom of crowds" said Mark Turrell, Imaginatik CEO. "We face great challenges today in many parts of the world, but we have a rare opportunity to bring together the problem solvers and organize their ideas into invaluable responses that are relevant worldwide. Everyone has something to say, an idea to share, an important question to ask. That's the only way we can have a chance to respond quickly, fairly and smartly." The results and accompanying stories will be compiled and published in spring 2009.

The world watches and learns

As water scarcity has emerged as a serious threat to peoples across the world, officials in other nations are taking special note of Australia's challenges. It is the first industrialized nation in modern times to contend with such severe and prolonged drought in its prime food-growing region. It won't be the only one, assert food, water and climate experts. South America's grain-growing region is drying up. Italy, France and Spain have contended with moisture shortages in recent years. The American Southwest is in the seventh year of a steadily worsening drought that has lowered water levels by 100 feet in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two of the earth's largest reservoirs. For the second year, moisture content is far below normal in California's Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides 60% of the state's water and nearly all of it for the irrigated Central Valley farm region. On February 28, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state drought emergency, calling for dramatic cuts in city and agricultural water use.

"What we need to do in the world is to take the best ideas, like how we use water, and share them as rapidly as we can all the way 'round the world," Australian science author Julian Cribb tells Circle of Blue. "So the very best ideas from the Murray-Darling basin need to be shared with the people who are critically short of water in India and China. The North China plain is critically short of water. The Ogallala aquifer in the United States is critically short of water. We're critically short of water in the Middle East and places like that. And when the Himalayan glaciers melt, finally, there's going to be absolute crisis in the north Indian grain bowl. So the ideas for how you use scarce water are going to be absolutely central to the destiny of the human race."

This story was adapted from a news release distributed by CSR Wire, and from materials on the Circle of Blue website. The Big Dry report was released March 10, 2009. The picture, by J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue, shows the effects of drought and man at the Wakool River near Swan Hill, which no longer tops its banks. The Murray-Darling river system winds across 400 miles of South Eastern Australia’s dry landscape and struggles to sustain much of the country’s agriculture.