The once quintessential Australian swagger has now come to resemble, in the wake of the water crisis, what Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously termed the "stages of grief": denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. In what is shaping up to be a cautionary tale for other developed nations, the world's 15th biggest economy is learning hard lessons about the limits of natural resources in an era of climate change. The upside is that Australians may be the ones to teach those lessons to the rest of the industrialized world.
In the Riverland district of South Australia, a 48-year-old man drives through his citrus orchard on a bulldozer, mowing down 800 of his Valencia and navel orange trees. The man knows what he is doing. Something must give. For decades the mighty Murray River transformed this land into a lush patchwork of olive, citrus, apricot, and avocado orchards. But now the water bureaucrats have announced that South Australians may use only 16 percent of their annual allocation. And so Mick Punturiero, a third-generation farmer of Italian descent, has made a hard choice: He elects to sacrifice his orange trees and reserve what water he has for his prized lime orchard. Underneath the roaring of the engine, Punturiero hears the cracking of muscular trunks he has nurtured for 20 years. And what roils inside him is something darker than sorrow.
A few weeks later two state officials come to Punturiero's village of Cooltong, just outside Renmark, a few hours' drive from Adelaide. They have an announcement to make. The catchment levels at Hume Dam have been revised, and it's good news: The water allocation has been doubled, to 32 percent! The farmers in attendance are not overjoyed. Truthfully, with the drought bearing down on them, 32 percent of what they need is not enough to save their orchards. All Punturiero can think is, I could have kept my orange trees.
Two months later, Punturiero is still possessed of operatic rage as he pours a guest some homemade lime juice and drops his meaty frame into a chair. Why has it taken them so long to recognize this water crisis? he demands. "Let's go to THEIR house! Tell them which child THEY have to sacrifice to save their whole family! Let's put THEIR family in a pile!"
He takes a deep breath. "I get very upset talking about this issue," he says. "I get very, very, VERY agitated over it. End of the day, what's been done is criminal." As to the actual crime and its perpetrators, Mick Punturiero flails with theories. Mostly he blames government officials who encouraged agricultural development beyond sustainable levels. Even in his more reflective moments, he does not entertain the notion that the problem arises from the folly of growing citrus on the wrong side of "the line."