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Published: 09 June 2021   •   Media release

Delegates at the River reflections annual water conference today have heard about the increased risks to agriculture and water infrastructure due to climate change.

In his address, Are we ready? Our changing climate Professor Mark Howden, Director of the Institute for Climate, Energy & Disaster Solutions at the Australian National University shared the future watch points for farmers and water managers.

"We've seen a sharp increase in the number and areas affected by extremely high temperatures and this trend is consistent with future projections," Professor Howden said.

"Somewhat paradoxically – but not news for farmers in this particular region – cold extremes such as late frosts have also been increasing in the southern Basin because of climate change.

"The risk of damaging late frosts is increasing due to a combination of lower average rainfall and more clear, cold nights along with intensification of the high-pressure systems which are bringing cold air onto the mainland from deep in the Southern Ocean.

"These late frosts are likely to continue for at least a decade before being overwhelmed by the warming trend."

Professor Howden said the existing trends towards, on average, less water in the Basin particularly in the south due to lower rainfall was likely to continue but will be punctuated by increasing flood extremes. Consequently, we will increasingly value our dams and other water infrastructure and have strong incentive to take better care of it."

"Associated with this risk of increasing flood extremes will be increased erosion risk due to higher rainfall intensities.

He said it was unsurprising that a hotter and drier climate would mean the existing climate 'drag' causing lower productivity and profitability of agriculture in the Basin was likely to continue and grow.

"What we mean by this is that higher temperatures and reduced rainfall during the growing season is pushing down on potential farm productivity even while improvements in technology and management are pushing them upwards," Professor Howden said.

"The result is often growth – but much more slowly than would have occurred in the absence of climate change."

The average reduction of agricultural productivity in Australia from climate change is the same as the global average.

"We expect there will be greatly increased competition for water between agricultural, urban, industrial and environmental users requiring careful attention to policy frameworks and to enhanced water use efficiency."

The inaugural River reflections conference is taking place in Griffith, New South Wales on Wednesday, 9 June and Thursday, 10 June 2021.

River reflections provides the space and time for the diverse communities and industries of the Murray–Darling Basin to come together. It is an opportunity to share innovations in water management, knowledge and lessons learned while celebrating achievements.

Speaker background

Professor Mark Howden is Director of the Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions at the Australian National University. He is also an Honorary Professor at Melbourne University, a Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a member of the ACT Climate Change Council.

He was on the US Federal Advisory Committee for the 3rd National Climate Assessment and contributes to several major national and international science and policy advisory bodies.

Mark has worked on climate variability, climate change, innovation and adoption issues for more than 30 years in partnership with many industry, community and policy groups via both research and science-policy roles. He helped develop both the national and international greenhouse gas inventories that are a fundamental part of the Paris Agreement and has assessed sustainable ways to reduce emissions.

He has been a major contributor to the IPCC since 1991, with roles in the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and now Sixth Assessment Reports, sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with other IPCC participants and Al Gore.


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