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Climate change has parched Aussie farmers looking north

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"Someone needs to make a hard decision and say, 'Let's move the people to where the water is,' " John Wharton, an outspoken mayor from northern Queensland, said last month.

"One of the things [the government] should do is stop development in dry areas and say, 'you can't build here for the next five to 10 years.' "

Many farmers in the southern states of Victoria, South Australia, and New South Wales are battling their seventh consecutive year of drought. The mighty Murray and Darling rivers on which they have relied for decades are exhausted, dwindling to weed-tangled streams.

It's no wonder farmers are turning their eyes to the north, hatching dreams of opening up northern Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory to cotton, rice, and citrus fruits.

Proponents of the shift say the region's proximity to Asia – Darwin is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney or Melbourne – make it profitable to grow specialty vegetables, such as bok choi, for burgeoning Asian markets.

Scientists predict a 15 percent decline in rainfall in the south in coming decades as a result of climate change. The north, in contrast, is likely to get wetter – it appears that industrial pollution from Southeast Asia is intensifying the monsoon season, and increasing rainfall over the region.

But history carries some sober warnings for farmers who think northern Australia is an agricultural El Dorado just waiting to be exploited.

Just east of the curiously named town of Humpty Doo, in the Northern Territory, is a vast lagoon, where fish eagles swoop above the paperbark trees and storks pick their way among lily pads.

It is a bird-watcher's paradise, but it started out in the 1950s as an ambitious agricultural enterprise known as the Humpty Doo Rice Project. Despite rich soils and plentiful water, it was a disaster. Magpie geese ate the rice seed, feral buffalo bulldozed the paddies and seasonal rains proved erratic. Within a decade, it was abandoned.

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