Canada’s praire drought Back to a dusty future

Jul 23rd 2009 | VANCOUVER From The Economist print edition

Farmers fret as the rivers dwindle

DURING the Depression of the 1930s, drought turned much of Alberta and Saskatchewan, on Canada’s western prairies, into a dust bowl. The combination of poor harvests and low grain prices drove thousands of farmers off the land. Now some prairie dwellers reckon history is repeating itself. The fall in oil and gas prices from their record highs a year ago has brought an abrupt halt to Alberta’s energy-based boom. And while grain prices have picked up, drought has once again brought billions of dollars of losses to farms and ranches.

A huge swathe of farmland spanning central Saskatchewan and Alberta, and angling northwest into British Columbia’s Peace River valley has suffered its driest winter and spring in at least 50 years (and 70 in some districts). 

Rainfall has been less than 40% of its normal level. Ranchers are staring at dry water holes and desiccated pasture, forcing them either to sell cattle or buy feed. Farmers are kicking at shrivelled crops. Heavy rains in late June and early July may make some fields worth harvesting but many are already lost. Some 900 farmers around Kindersley, south-west of Saskatoon, have ploughed their crops under and claimed insurance, according to Stewart Wells, the president of Canada’s National Farmers Union. He foresees losses of up to 30% in wheat, barley, rapeseed and hay, and more if the drought continues.Worse, such conditions may become the norm. David Schindler, an ecologist at the University of Alberta, says that evidence from tree rings and ancient algae suggests that the prairies were drought-prone in the past and that the 20th century was unusually wet. The prairies lie in the eastern rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Almost all their rivers flow eastward from the Rockies. As global warming melts mountain glaciers, the rivers’ summer flow has dwindled by up to 60% (more in one case) of their historical average. But more water is being drawn from them for cities, irrigation and the processing of oil from tar sands. Mr Schindler fears that unless these trends are reversed, the prairies risk becoming semi-desert.

Farmers grumble that their margins are so low that a bad year can bankrupt them. Last month their union urged the federal parliament to support family farmers and curb the power of agribusiness corporations.

Perhaps prairie populism is on the way back, too.