There is an article in the Economist this week talking about The Murray-Darling river system in Australia. (Sadly, it is behind a for-pay wall so I can't link to it. The gist of it is that Australians are overusing the water from the Murray-Darling river system. The mouth of the river has dried up for the second time in 215 years, and the salt levels of the whole river system is steadily increasing, and based on current trends the water will be undrinkable within 20 years. This is a problem, as the river's catchment area consists of a large chunk of four states, and is responsible for irrigating a large portion of the country's agriculture.
But it gets worse
South Australia, where until recently the Murray flowed into the Southern Ocean at Coorong, is the state at the end of the line. With little but desert and dry rivers to its north, Adelaide, the capital, depends entirely on water piped from the Murray more than 100km (60 miles) to the east. People in Coober Pedy, a mining town in the middle of desert, reckon their water, pumped and treated from ancient underground deposits, tastes better than Adelaide's. South Australia's minister for the Murray River, John Hill, says its rate of flow is half that needed to sustain it environmentally. From this month, irrigators in South Australia will have their water allocations cut by one-fifth; in October each state taxpayer will start paying a levy to raise A$20m ($13m) a year. The money will go towards buying extra water from upstream and projects to restore the flow.
The article goes on to say that Adelaide's problem is that it is at the end of the river, water rights are allocated on a state basis, and therefore people (mostly farmers) in three other states have essentially had a free for all with the water before it gets to South Australia. It may be that a constitutional amendment to transfer control of water rights to the federal government might be necessary to make sure that South Africa retains access to its water.
My gut feeling is that with or without this the situation will eventually be solved. The million people of Adelaide do have more economic power than a relatively small number of farmers in the other states, and ultimately the money of the people of Adelaide will make their interests the most important issue, and eventually the river will be cleaned up, even if it requires buying up a lot of farmland. There are cities in the world in more marginal places than Adelaide, and they survive. The Americans manage to have four major cities (Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City) in the middle of the desert, and two even bigger cities (Los Angeles and San Diego) on the southern west coast. While water resources in the American west are greater than in Australia, the population of these areas in the US are greater by an even bigger factor, and the American cities survive, even if they are constantly squabbling over water.
However, this does of course raise an interesting question about the distribution of people in Australia. Of Australia's five main cities, two of them - Adelaide and Perth - are in very marginal locations. There is Adelaide, with the potentially severe water problems mentioned, and very desolate land if you drive very far out of the city in any direction. And there is Perth, which is on the relatively desolate West Coast. Perth is something of a boom town, due to the immense mineral wealth of the state of Western Australia. But Adelaide is a city that has probably seen better days. There is some industry there - a large portion of Australia's cars are made there - and the big growth industry is the wine industry. (Adelaide is surrounded by vineyards in all directions, essentially). But is this really enough to support a city of a million people? And why, of all the places in Australia they could be, are there a million people there precisely?
While a lot of Australia does consist of marginal and uninhabitable locations, there are actually plenty of fertile and uninhabited locations as well. The other three major cities, Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, are in very non-marginal locations. As you go north from Melbourne through Sydney and Brisbane, the country generally becomes more fertile and the water resources greater. Once you get north of Brisbane, the country becomes more fertile still, and you eventually get to the tropical area and the north Queensland cities Cairns and Townsville (the home of Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup), and when you go west you eventually get to Darwin on the north coast.
These are all areas that could easily support large populations, but generally they don't. Traditionally people have avoided these sorts of areas because of the heat, but in these days of air conditioning this does not matter so much. (The American south has turned into a boom area since the invention of air conditioning for precisely this reason). Australia, bafflingly, has seriously trailed the United States in its use of air conditioning (particularly in people's homes) but we do seem to be finally getting there. And there is a gradual northern movement in the centre of Australia's population for this reason. Combined with this is the fact that the Asian economies to Australia's north have been becoming larger and steadily more important to us. This has led to more economic activity in the north, more Asian populations in the northern cities, and growth in these cities (particularly Cairns in Queensland) as tourist destinations.
In the long run, by which I mean 50 years or more, this inevitably will spell a profound change in the centre of gravity of Australia. Cities that are at present seen as very marginal to the country will become quite important. In the long run, there will probably be no better real estate investment than land in the centre of Darwin.
One way in which this present marginal status of the northern cities is reflected is in sporting terms. There are very few professional sporting teams based in the north because the cities are too small and the travel distances too great. None of the northern cities have first class cricket teams based there. People in the northern cities have had little chance to be spectators of top class sport.
However, this weekend the Australian cricket team will play Bangladesh in Darwin, and they will play them again in Cairns next week. A fair bit of the reason for this is that the Australian summer is crowded and the fixture list is long, to get the games in they have to be played out of season, and if they are played out of season the climate is not right in southern Australia at this time of year. This is perfectly true, but these games still represent a recognition that this region of Australia is slowly becoming less marginal. In 100 years, I cannot help but think that the Darwin test will be a very big occasion. So therefore, the first one, to be played this week, should be seen as a memorable occasion. I am sure the people of Darwin are seeing it this way, even though due to the weak opposition it shall probably not be very memorable as a game of cricket.
And just as an almost unrelated point, does anyone know of any city in the world other than Darwin that is named after a great scientist? The fact that we have one in Australia strikes me as extremely cool.