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Australian drought hits vineyards

12 August 08 14:32 GMT

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Farmers are predicting a fall in Australia's grape harvest as the worst drought in a century worsens.

Grape growers in the wine belt regions of Victoria and South Australia have said conditions are the driest they have ever seen and describe how vast areas of vines have withered and died.

One of the worst hit regions is the Murray Darling Basin, an area the size of France and Germany that produces 40% of Australia's food.

Some Australian winemakers in the Murray Darling region are guaranteed irrigation supplies under what are called "high security" flows for key industries but even they are facing severe restrictions.

See map of rainfall in Murray Darling River Basin

The situation for grape growers in other places is far more perilous.

Their allocation of irrigated water has shrunk to almost nothing because reservoir levels are dangerously low.

A decade of below average rainfall in Australia has led to the worst drought anyone can remember.

In the farming community of Mildura, 550km (341 miles) north-west of Melbourne, the local wine industry is facing a battle to survive.

"It's dry," said winemaker Fred de Blasiar. "We hardly get any rain whatsoever.

"(If) we don't get any water to irrigate the vineyards, they'll die. Twelve months and they'll be dead. It's going to be very grim, so we're going to be in very big trouble."

More than half of Australia's wine is sold overseas and the industry has enjoyed a lucrative slice of the US and British markets.

Grape growers have insisted that prices for consumers must go up if they are to meet rising production costs and stay in business.

Government figures show that the drought in Australia is tightening its grip.

Grain and livestock farmers have warned that another bad season could force them off the land.

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