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Lessons for Australia to learn from Darfur

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Church leaders and politicians have been calling for prayers for rain in recent months, and it would seem that those calls have been answered in Eastern Australia. We all hope that the drought is breaking in Australia and we will never return to our former profligate use of water as we come to understand the impact of our standard of living on our limited natural resources and the extent of our individual environmental footprints.

The Mad Max films demonstrated how anarchy emerges when people compete for scarce resources, but we don’t need fiction to understand how such devastation wreaks havoc—we need only consider the situation in Darfur where decades of drought helped trigger Darfur's violence as rival groups fought over scarce water and arable land.

In Darfur there is no end in sight for the drought. The situation is so desperate now that experts fear the war and its refugee crisis will leave the land uninhabitable. With rainfall steadily declining in the region, growing populations in much of North Africa and the Middle East are straining a very limited water supply.

The UN Environmental Program has recently released a new assessment of Sudan which paints a bleak picture of the impact of climate change in Darfur. Deserts throughout the country have spread south at a rate of about 100 km over the past four decades. Crop yields are expected to fall by up to 70 per cent in the most vulnerable areas.

With the desert closing in Arab nomads have drifted farther south, bringing their herds of cattle toward lands that African villagers were farming. Those herds destroyed fields and hastened soil erosion, making the land unfit for farming. The land has been denuded—the trees that helped stabilise the soil and provide shade for crops are gone, creating a desperate arid landscape.

Even steps designed to reduce human suffering are causing environmental problems in this fragile environment. International relief organisations are trying to care for about 2.5 million people in massive refugee camps. Their only sources of water are wells, but the water table is dropping and the wells are drying up.

Refugees cutting trees for firewood and mud brick making are rapidly depleting the forests around the camps. This is a Catch 22 situation—refugees are desperate to earn some money by making mud bricks, which require water and more wood to fire the kilns.

When the war finally ends, and the drought is over any attempts to rebuild village compounds and homes will be thwarted by the scarcity of wood and water. The UN estimates between 12 and 16 million trees will be needed to rehouse the 2.5 million refugees currently in camps across the country.

There is less enduring environmental damage in southern Darfur where aid groups and UN agencies are trying to broker peace between the farmers and nomads in an effort to protect rapidly diminishing ecosystems. There, where once grew forests, is now a barren landscape.

There are lessons for Australians in this bleak picture. Can the mighty Murray-Darling system be saved and the livelihood of communities and farmers across the basin supported by sustainable water management? Can we continue clearing land for marginal agriculture? Population pressures are growing in our cities and along the east coast of Australia and climate change has already changed life forever in Western Australia. Rising salinity, soil erosion and desertification are all happening in our country. We need to consider how easily much of our arable land could become as desolate as Darfur.

The Mad Max movies depicted a dystopian near-future society, grappling with a prolonged fuel shortage. Civil society had broken down and lawless gangs rampaged across the desolate landscape. It could just as easily be a prolonged water shortage.

As active and intelligent players in the global community, Australia must take leadership on the issue of climate change in international efforts and engage in practical support for the countries confronting the immediate impacts of climate change. On the home front, we must put our own house in order by acknowledging the economic, social and environmental challenges of climate change. We must invest in sustainable responses to those challenges by funding innovative research and development and commercialisation and develop alternative energy sources.



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Existing comments

Unfortunately, Australia might have left matters unattended for too long. Examples, how whole communities have adapted to and adopted changes already in other countries are widely available. Agenda 21, following on from the Kyoto Protocol would be a good starting point. Numerous reports from UNEP and UNDP are also widely available. I am afraid, Australian leadership may no longer be possible at this stage. But, I am still positive - once we learn, as individuals to work together and political parties cooperating for the common good - there's every chance for meaningful change.

Veronika Jeffrey | 09 July 2007  

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