Prime Minister John Howard announced multibillion-dollar water reforms Thursday aimed at easing Australia's record drought, although his critics call it a pre-election ploy to establish his environmental credentials.
Australia, already the world's driest continent, faces its worst drought on record, crippling its agricultural sector and forcing many cities and towns to enact tight water restrictions as reservoirs dry up.
Under Howard's $7.8 billion plan, the federal government will seize regulatory control of Australia's largest waterway, the Murray-Darling river system, from the four states that now administer irrigation rights.
The plan also includes a massive $4.7 billion overhaul of the irrigation pipes and channels along the Murray-Darling, aimed at saving billions of gallons of water each year.
Howard, calling the water shortage "one of the greatest challenges of our time," said he would appoint a task force to examine the viability of expanding farming activity to Australia's wetter north.
Climate change cited
"The current trajectory of water use and management in Australia is not sustainable," Howard told the National Press Club in Canberra. "In a protracted drought, and with the prospect of long-term climate change, we need radical and permanent change."
But opposition Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd accused Howard of failing to use available resources to address the water crisis, and of exploiting the issue ahead of elections due in late 2007.
Rudd told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that for nearly three years, the country has had a $1.6 billion Australian Water Fund, and Howard has not spent 75 percent of that.
"Now, six months before an election, we have the announcement of another ... fund," Rudd said.
The Murray-Darling system provides irrigation for 40 percent of Australia's farm produce and drinking water for the South Australia state capital, Adelaide. But lower-than-average rainfall and overuse of the rivers have reduced water flows to a trickle in some areas.
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, a government commodities research body, has predicted that grain earnings will fall by 35 percent during the fiscal year ending June 30, and that Australia will produce only a third of its usual crop of wheat, a major export, due to a shortage of winter rains.
Still opposed to Kyoto
Howard, who has steadfastly refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol curbing carbon dioxide emissions, has come under fire from environmental groups amid concerns that rising global temperatures could be causing the five-year drought.
Recent polls have shown that water management and climate change will be key issues for voters.
Capitalizing on those concerns, the opposition Labor Party recently appointed Peter Garrett, who used to be the lead singer of the Australian rock group Midnight Oil and is now a politician, as its new environment spokesman.
Howard responded earlier this week by appointing millionaire merchant banker-turned-lawmaker Malcolm Turnbull, an outspoken advocate of water reform, as minister for the newly renamed Department of Environment and Water Resources.