Farmer Mazzareno Bisogni fights back tears as he stands among the remains of trees he planted 35 years ago, victims of a drought hitting “Australia’s Mississippi”.
Bisogni’s orchard lies in the heart of the once-mighty Murray-Darling river system which irrigates Australia’s food bowl, the vast southeastern corner responsible for 40 percent of agricultural output.
The eight-year ‘big dry’, the worst drought in a century, has devastated the region, an area covering 1.06 million square kilometres (410,000 square miles) — the size of France and Spain combined.
Lack of water this year meant the fruit on Bisogni’s apple and pear trees in Victoria state literally cooked on their branches under the furious Australian sun, making them suitable only for jam.
Rather than leave the land, like many farmers along the Murray, the tenacious 78-year-old Italian migrant scaled back his operation so he could use limited water resources to cultivate export-quality produce for Asia.
“I couldn’t sleep for nights before pulling them out, I was tossing and turning” he said, pointing to the blackened branches of dozens of trees he bulldozed and burned.
“A pear tree has 100 years life (but) I have to pull them out. It broke my heart.”
Tourist brochures for the Murray-Darling say Mark Twain likened the waterway to his beloved Mississippi during a visit in the 1890s.
But the US writer would struggle to make the comparison today, particularly since the one of the river’s paddleboats, the Cumberoona, had to stop operating three years ago when water levels became too shallow.
Sections of the river have become little more than stagnant pools as the drought continues, with banks eroded into crumbling dirt cliffs that leave the roots of gum trees exposed.
For three months this year, a toxic blue-green algal bloom leeched along 800 kilometres (500 miles) of the Murray, prompting warnings from authorities not to swim in the river.
Water levels are so low that the freshwater lakes near the Murray’s mouth in South Australia are turning acid as soil minerals are exposed to oxygen. The lakes are now below sea-level and only man-made barriers keep the ocean out.
Official figures show the number of farmers in the Murray-Darling fell 10 percent to 67,000 between 1996 and 2006 as drought and falling prices drove them from the region.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd describes the decline of the Murray-Darling as the “most practical impact of climate change across Australia”, the world’s driest inhabited continent.
Environmentalists also blame fertiliser run-off and decades of wasteful irrigation practices, as well as short-term policies by the three state governments on the river’s route that ignore the waterway’s overall health.
Rudd’s national government has attempted to address the problem by placing the river system’s management under a centralised body, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).
It has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying out irrigators’ water allocations to try to restore the so-called “environmental flows” needed to restore the river’s health.
But locals such as Bisogni say what they really need is rain, a commodity the authority warns is likely to be scarce for a long time to come.
This month’s MDBA drought update said river inflows remained two-thirds below their long-term average and would worsen if forecasts of a dry “El Nino” weather pattern proved correct.
“With another El Nino event predicted to bring dry conditions, the overall outlook for the 2009-2010 water year unfortunately remains very poor,” authority chief executive Rob Freeman said.
For Bisogni, still working his farm long past his planned retirement and forced to borrow 2.3 million dollars (1.9 million US) last year to keep it operating, it amounts to a grinding struggle.
“We fight with the water, we fight with the weather, we fight with the frost,” he said.
“Really it’s the wrong game, I’m in the wrong game.”