By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney
Parts of Australia are in the grip of the worst drought in memory.
River beds and dams have dried up
Rainfall in many eastern and southern regions has been at near record lows. On top of that, the weather has been exceptionally warm.
The parched conditions have sparked an emotional debate about global warming.
Conservationists insist the "big dry" is almost certainly the result of climate change and warn that Australia is on the brink of environmental disaster.
Other experts believe such hysteria is wildly misplaced and that the country shouldn't panic.
'A war-like scenario'
The drought in Australia has lasted for more than five years.
The worry for some is that this could be the start of a protracted period of low rainfall that could go on for decades.
"The really scary thing is last time we had a drought of this intensity that lasted about five years - it lasted for about 50 years," cautioned Professor Andy Pitman from Macquarie University in Sydney.
"The politicians truly believe this is a five-year or six-year drought that will break sometime in 2007 or 2008. But it might not break until 2050 and we aren't thinking in those terms at this stage," Professor Pitman told the BBC.
Global warming, the drought and the future of dwindling water supplies will undoubtedly dominate talk at barbeques and dinner parties this festive season in Australia.
"We're in a state of emergency," said Cate Faehrmann from the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales. "We need to treat this as a war-like scenario. The people are really worried that we are going to run out of water."
She added: "I can imagine Australia being a desert in a few decades' time in some of these agricultural areas. The soil is blowing away, the rivers are drying up.
"I think there will be plots of land abandoned and perhaps whole agricultural practices abandoned."
The drought has affected farmers worse than anyone else.
Jock Lawrie, president of the New South Wales Farmers' Association, paints a dismal picture.
"There are people out in some parts of our state that have gone to work for four or five years and haven't even earned an income.
"With the winter crop failing to the extent it did, there have been some massive losses. It is really hard on the emotions of people, there's no doubt about that."
Farmers have been hard hit by lack of rain and soaring temperatures
Australia has some of the world's most erratic rainfall-patterns.
This vast continent has experienced very dry periods before: the "Federation Drought" of the late 1800s was a disaster for many communities.
However, some climate experts believe this drought will also pass and Australians shouldn't be too alarmed.
Veteran meteorologist Bill Kinimonth insists the gradual warming of the earth is part of a natural cycle: "The climate follows patterns which we can read back from our instrument records for about 150 years, and from a lot of the proxy records they go back thousands of years.
"The ice cores show the fluctuations of the climate over 100,000-year cycles."
He told the BBC News website: "We're presently in what we might call the optimum period, where the Earth is warmer than it has been for the last 20,000 years, and I think we should be making the most of it.
"The alternative is not very good - a cold, dry Australia."
The Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol insisting it would damage the economy, now believes, however, that serious environmental trouble is brewing.
Professor Andy Pitman says the drought has forced politicians to look at the bigger picture.
"The Australian government has absolutely jumped on greenhouse bandwagon in the last three or four months," he said.
"Although it won't sign Kyoto, it's now saying it wants to lead the drive for greenhouse gas emissions globally in a very aggressive leadership way.
"That's largely due to the drought and the Stern report."