Saturday, February 09, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - drought, food prices and indigenous issues

It's raining as I write. Hard to believe that six months ago we were worrying about what appeared to be one of the worst droughts on record in parts of southern Australia. Mind you, the picture is still patchy, simply because the drought was so prolonged. We can see this if we look at some of the NSW dam storage data.

For the benefit of international readers, the Great Dividing Range runs for over 3,500 km along the eastern edge of Australia from Cape York in the north into Victoria in the far south. The range creates a rainfall divide, with generally higher rainfall on the coastal strip tailing away into arid lands on the west. The Range is the source of both eastern and western flowing rivers, including the Murray-Darling River system.

In NSW, the western flowing rivers have fourteen major storage dams - six in New England - supporting irrigation across the Murray-Darling basin, Australia's major food bowl.

During the drought, water levels in these dams collapsed, leading to an irrigation crisis. As the drought started to break, much of the initial rain was simply absorbed into the dry soil. Only now are run-offs increasing.

The chart below shows water levels in the Hume Dam, a major storage on the Murray River. The green line shows the precipate decline in water levels from 60% in February 2006 to less than 5% in February 2007. This decline triggered the water wars, including the attempt by the Commonwealth to take control over the Murray Darling basin.

Since the low of February 2007, water levels have increased. However, they remain well below normal levels.

The chart below shows water held in the Menindee Lakes on the Darling River. Storage here depends upon rainfall far up-stream in the headwater rivers. Water storage, already low in February 2006, declined steadily, finally bottoming out in December 2007. You can also see the very sharp upwards spike as floodwaters from New England and Southern Queensland finally arrived. As at today, the Australian Bureau of Metereology has flood warnings out for the Condamine-Balonne, Macintyre, Castlereagh, Warrego and Paroo Rivers. All these rivers feed into the Darling River, so levels far downstream at Lake Menindee should continue to rise.

But will the rains continue? Here the Bureau's latest projections for the period February to April 2008 suggest some weakening, with 50/50 chances of above or below average rainfall. I will be interested to see the next projections due to be released end February.

The breaking drought links to two issues that I have been meaning to write about.

The first is Australian food prices. The few earlier posts that I wrote on this continue to draw hits. There is a fair bit of interest out there in information about food prices.

The second issue is the major increase in food prices internationally. Even though Australia is a major food producer, high international prices still feed through into local supermarket prices.

On the surface, there appears to have been a very major structural shift in the terms of trade for primary products due to two very different things.

The first is simply an emerging global imbalance between population growth and food production. The second is changing consumption patterns in India and China associated with rising incomes. As in so many areas of global life, this is feeding through into increased global demand.

Australia remains a very lucky country, short term issues such as inflation notwithstanding.

Back in October 2006 in Water, Drought and the Environment - working from facts I discussed Australia's continued real dependence on agricultural and mining exports. I haven't checked the latest stats, but I do not think that the position has changed.

In the past this made for considerable economic vulnerability. At one level this is still true. But just for the present, the outlook remains good for key export products.

In my last Saturday Morning Musings, I talked about some searches I had been doing on the Dainggatti people. The following day in Report of the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board, year ended 30 June 1940 I looked at an official report at a pivotal time in evolving attitudes and policies in NSW towards our Aboriginal peoples.

In today's Australian, Keith Windschuttle had an opinion piece on the curent apology issue. If you can get below the rant, and I admit that's very hard to do, to the underlying evidence he presents, you will see that he is addressing the same type of issue that I was raising in my post on the Board's report.

At present it is absolutely impossible to have any sensible discussion on the evolution and impact of official policy towards our Aboriginal people. It's all too sensitive.

Yesterday, as a case in point, I happened to mention the NSW report in discussion. All I said was that there was an asymetry between the stats in the report and some of the "stolen generation"' discussion. I had my head bitten off.

I have made my own position on the sorry question very clear. I support an apology. I did not just come to this position. I had to work it through.

Further, I came to it in spite of, not because of, some of the arguments on the sorry side. I see many of these as a-historical and wrong. Because of this, my instinctive reaction was to oppose an apology.

I do not know how long it will be before we can have a proper discussion on the history of our Aboriginal peoples in the post 1788 period. Thirty years perhaps? Things are presently just too twisted.

I am an insatiably curious person who just wants to understand. I am also a person inclined to question any current orthodoxy. So what do I do in the current climate? Do I put all Aboriginal history or policy aside as just too hard?

The answer is no, but I am trying to focus what I say and do in areas where I can make a contribution. I am also focusing on those things in which I am interested.

This is not, as some of it may seem, all pontification or academic clap trap.

Last year I worked for a brief period with an Aboriginal colleague from New England. Both smokers, we used to coincide outside the office in that small social world occupied by smokers. I could at least talk to her about her area and people. I learned, but then so did she simply because I had researched her group. We could talk.

Then the post I did on CHIP meant that I could supply a copy of the report plus supporting data to a colleague who had to do some work on the issue. This had no affect on the discussion, simply reduced search time.

I suppose my point in all this is that I feel helpless in the face of the broader discussion. I don't want to play there. I want to play where what I say may have some impact.

I would much prefer to write about the Dainggati, for example, where I can satisfy my own curiosity while also helping those who have some connection or interest.


Re-reading the last bit, I am not sure that I have the tone right. I am not shooting at anybody in particular. I just find the present tone of the discussion very difficult in a personal sense.

Examined independently and objectively, there are many things to be sorry about in the way that our indigenous peoples were treated. Yet there are also many ways in which the story can be presented.

I really want to know the story, what actually happened and why. I find it difficult when I have to deal with today's overlays on the story because, at least as I see it, this detracts from the story itself.


Lexcen said...

Jim, just wanted to add that Keith Windshuttle says (tongue in cheek I suspect) that $500000 to each family that was affected by the "Stolen Generation" is only appropriate if the SORRY is to have any meaning.

Jim Belshaw said...

Maybe tongue in cheek, Lexcen. More, I think, a somewhat ponderous way of making a point.

Anonymous said...

Definitely tongue-in-cheek, I thought; I saw it even as sarcastic.

Anonymous said...


With all the trouble and strife in the world it is somehow reassuring to read that the ABM is still on track with their mission - forecasting "50/50 chances of above or below average rainfall"

Thank you for the smile.


Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, there is a fair bit of sarcasm there. David, glad to make you smile!