updated 10/18/2006 9:58:40 AM ET 2006-10-18T13:58:40

Thunderstorms sparked 4,000 bolts of lightning across southeastern Australia on Wednesday, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said.

Senior forecaster Neale Fraser said the lightning strikes in the southeast corner of New South Wales state heralded the start of Australia’s summer storm season.

“From now on, right through the summer, is the severe storm season. Certainly from October onwards until March or April next year is potentially severe thunderstorm time,” said Fraser.

Lightning strikes are among the most common causes of bushfires during Australia’s summer and fire fighting officials are warning of a severe bushfire season due to a severe drought and unseasonably high temperatures.

Firefighters said Australia was facing an extreme fire danger, with hundreds of blazes in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia last week.

Scientists warned on Friday of an increasing threat of bushfires for decades to come as climate change brings more frequent higher temperatures in Australia and less rainfall.

“The frequency of days of very high fire danger are increasing 20 to 30 percent over the next few decades,” said Penny Whetton from the country’s leading scientific body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

Dams drying up
An El Nino weather pattern was now bringing warm dry conditions to Australia and poor water management was wasting dwindling water resources as dams dried up, scientists said.

Evaporation saw the equivalent of the water content of Sydney Harbor being lost in one dam alone in New South Wales.

Without rain many already shrinking rivers, including Australia’s food basket, the Murray-Darling river system, would run dry, warned the National Climate Center.

Prime Minister John Howard said the drought was the worst in 100 years and would eat into the country’s economic growth.

“It’s the worst in a century,” he said. “I would expect this drought to leave a very big impression on the Australian psyche.”

The National Climate Center said Australia had yet to recover from the last El Nino in 2002-03, leaving many farmers facing five straight years of drought.

Crop losses now stretch across the country, 92 percent of economically dominant New South Wales is in drought, and farmers have started off-loading stock before the hot, dry summer when they would be forced to buy feed and water.

Saleyard volumes in Victoria are up 60 percent on last year and sheep sales in New South Wales are up 70 percent. A record 67,000 sheep were sold in one day at one saleyard last week.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics last week slashed its winter crop forecast by more than a third and its 2006/07 crop forecast by 17 percent because of drought.

“It’s a rural recession,” Treasurer Peter Costello told Australian radio on Thursday.

Water wasted
Australia’s government said it would provide financial aid to drought-hit farmers, but there are calls for better land and water management to combat the drought.

A national audit of water resources released on Friday found vital water supplies were being wasted despite six major cities, including Sydney, imposing water restrictions.

The report warned the tapping of bore water to substitute for fresh water might be draining rivers and there was no agreement on how to buy back water allocations from irrigators to save rivers.

“With the likely scenario that the Murray-Darling basin will have no water storage by April ... we have to face the fact that the way we do agriculture in some places will have to change,” said Sen. Rachel Siewert. “We have over-allocated our water resources and it needs to be addressed now.”

But the rural crisis is not merely environmental and financial. With many farmers debt-laden and being forced off the land, there are concerns that rural suicides may rise.

“We can expect a lot of pressure, particularly on rural families as they juggle drought and debt,” said Christopher Pyne, parliamentary secretary for health and aging.

“So suicide is going to be very much an important issue in the months and years ahead,” Pyne told reporters last week.

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