Published: April 2009

Murray-Darling Basin

Southeastern Australia

Australia's Dry Run

What will happen when the climate starts to change and the rivers dry up and a whole way of life comes to an end? The people of the Murray-Darling Basin are finding out right now.

By Robert Draper
Photograph by Amy Toensing

On the side of a road somewhere in southeastern Australia sits a man in a motionless pickup truck, considering the many ways in which his world has dried up. The two most obvious ways are in plain view. Just beyond his truck, his dairy cattle graze on the roadside grass. The heifers are all healthy, thank God. But there are only 70 of them. Five years ago, he had nearly 500. The heifers are feeding along a public road—"not strictly legal," the man concedes, but what choice does he have? There is no more grass on the farm he owns. His land is now a desert scrub­land where the slightest breeze lifts a hazy wall of dust. He can no longer afford to buy grain, which is evident from the other visible reminder of his plight: the bank balance displayed on the laptop perched on the dashboard of his truck. The man, who has never been rich but also never poor, has piled up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. The cows he gazes at through his windshield—that is all the income he has left.

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