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Last Updated: Monday, 9 May, 2005, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Australia wilts in its Big Dry
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Australia has had one of its warmest Aprils on record, opting for sun block and air conditioning, rather than autumn woollies and heaters.

"It was a very spectacular departure from normal," said Peter Dunda from the Bureau of Meteorology in Sydney.

Peter Dunda from the Bureau of Meteorology in Sydney
Peter Dunda says Australia may start suffering from El Niņo
In parts of New South Wales, temperatures hovered just below 30C - more than five degrees above the average.

It has not only been warm, it has also been very dry. Only once before since 1910 has Australia had so little rain in the period from January to April.

As a result, much of the country is in the grip of an unyielding drought, with an increasing number of farmers receiving emergency government aid.

Weather forecasters are warning that Australia's 'Big Dry' could get even worse.

Even if Sydney puts in a desalination plant... that eventually will be overtaken by population growth and we'll be back where we started
Environmentalist Jeff Angel

"There are some early signs that there is a slightly higher than normal risk of going into an El Niņo episode in our winter and Spring period," Mr Dunda said.

Australia's climate is influenced by changes in sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean. At different ends of the spectrum lie La Niņa - which is associated with floods in Australia - and El Niņo - which is linked to drought.

A cocktail of various weather factors lies behind the above average April temperatures.

Firstly, the tropical monsoon has been fairly weak and failed to spread cooling moisture to the interior. High-pressure systems across those central regions have directed warm air across the southern states.

On top of all that, there were almost no cold fronts during April, which would normally bring cooler weather from the south of the continent and the Southern Ocean.

Desalination plant

All of which makes for worrying times in a county used to climatic extremes. Many Australians are already living with tough water restrictions. Supply levels at dams supplying Sydney have never been lower.

The New South Wales State government is considering a controversial desalination plant as a solution to dwindling supplies of fresh water. It had previously dismissed the idea as too expensive and ecologically damaging.

Environmentalist Jeff Angel still thinks that way.

"Even if Sydney puts in place a desalination plant that could give us up to 30% of our daily water supplies, that eventually will be overtaken by population growth and we'll be back where we started," he predicted.

"Sydney is in a very desperate situation with its four million-odd people," he added.

Campaigners are calling on decision-makers to pay far more attention to the recycling of storm and waste water.

But Marc Simon, Managing Director of Australian Water Services, which is building a desalination plant in Perth, has insisted the process will be invaluable to cities across this arid continent.

"The big benefit is to bring a diversification of supply," he said.

Mr Simon stressed that the technology was always improving and that the environmental impact of the desalination plants would be negligible.

As Australia prays for rain, this unusually warm spell has put a dent in businesses selling heaters, warm clothing and blankets.

Tourists happy

Tourists Clint and Michael from Dallas
Texan tourists Clint and Michael say they have been pleasantly surprised

There are some positives during these anxious times, however, especially for beach lovers and tourists.

"Where I come from, autumn time is zero degrees," said 29-year-old Alex from Venice, enjoying Sydney's Bondi beach.

"The surf's been bad in recent weeks but the weather's been awesome. It feels like summertime," he said.

Tourists Clint and Michael from Dallas have also been unexpectedly impressed, leaving their jumpers and jackets back at the hotel - but not their cowboy hats.

"I knew Australia's going into winter but I didn't expect it to be this nice," said Michael, while Clint added: "I was hoping it was going to be like this but everybody said it would be a little cold. It couldn't be better."


SEE ALSO:
Australia warned of water crisis
05 Jul 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia launches 'green' scheme
15 Jun 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia slammed over environment
19 Aug 02 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Australia
04 Feb 04 |  Country profiles
Australia 'drowning in salt'
29 Jun 99 |  Science/Nature


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