SYDNEY (AFP) — Australia's once-in-a-century drought has tightened its grip on the country's major food growing zone and could kill off the region's orchards and vineyards, Prime Minister John Howard said Friday.
In his weekly radio address, Howard said that the continued lack of rain meant permanent plantings, such as fruit trees and grape vines, were dying.
"We are dealing with a genuine crisis," he said of the extreme water shortage in the Murray-Darling Basin.
"Irrigation allocations are still at either zero or extremely low levels, inflows into storages are at record lows and there is significantly less water stored today compared to the same time last year.
"Horticultural and other water dependent industries are, needless to say, the hardest hit of all; and there is now, tragically, a high risk that permanent plantings could be lost."
Andrew Gregson, of the New South Wales Irrigators' Council, said winter rainfall, and run-off into irrigation dams, had been practically non-existent.
"You are looking at everything from citrus, right through to nuts and also you're looking at grape vines (being lost)," Gregson told AFP.
"The trees themselves are actually dying."
If they lose these trees, farmers stand to lose not only this year's crops, but those of coming years, he said.
"If these permanent plantings die, not only do they have to be replaced, it's quite a number of years before they then produce again," he said.
The Murray-Darling Basin is the country's key food growing area, accounting for more than 41 percent of the gross value of agricultural production.
But the drought is not limited to the basin. Water restrictions are in place in most of Australia's major cities.
Combined with global warming, the drought, which has gripped parts of the country for seven years, has become an issue in the lead-up to this year's election.
Howard earlier this week pledged an extra 430 million dollars (370 million US) in drought aid and Friday added that the government would relax rules for farmers to obtain financial relief.
He also refused to rule out compensating farmers if they had to forego their water allocations to guarantee supplies to parched cities such as Adelaide.
"We will always look at something that's fair and reasonable," Howard said.
Treasurer Peter Costello, who is expected to take over as prime minister should the government win this year's election, said desalination plants could be the solution.
"This is now very serious," he said. "We have a situation where our capital cities are running out of water and I think we should have a desalination plant for every capital city in Australia."
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