CANBERRA, Oct 25: Living in the world's driest inhabited continent, Australians are used to wild schemes promising deliverance from drought and precious water.
But with their rivers disappearing and a searing spring sealing the onset of the country's worst known drought, desperate farmers are being asked to pack up and open a ''new agricultural frontier'' in the tropical north.
Influential lawmakers want farmers to abandon marginal irrigation lands in the food bowl Murray-Darling river basin, which sprawls across three eastern states, and break new ground in the remote north, closer to Indonesia than Canberra, the nation's capital in the south-east.
''It's a no-brainer that we need a new agricultural frontier in northern Australia, where the Timor Gulf and Burdekin catchments have 60 percent of the nation's run-off, 10 times more than the Murray-Darling, but are virtually untapped,'' says ruling Liberal Party Senator Bill Heffernan.
Unlike the parched south, Australia's north receives heavy annual rainfalls during the wet season.
Western Australia's Ord River Irrigation Scheme opened in 1972 and includes Lake Argyle, Australia's largest dam covering 740 sq km -- bigger than Singapore.
Environmentalists are also demanding struggling rural families change the practices of generations and quit marginal areas like the Murray-Darling.
Large areas of the basin, particularly during the current drought, are turning to dust because of overstocking or are being destroyed by salt brought to the surface through long-term irrigation raising water tables.
''It's time we just faced up to reality that much of the land currently farmed shouldn't be farmed,'' Clive Hamilton, an analyst at the Australia Institute economic think-tank, told local radio.
Australia's rural ''outback'' has vast tracts of desert, few communities and little arable land. Unlike other major farming nations such as the United States, agriculture is mostly limited to belts of land nearer the coast that have better rainfall.
Better, but also historically variable.
BOOM AND BUST Throughout Australia's brief history since Europeans arrived in the late eighteenth century, farmers have battled boom-and-bust cycles of floods and droughts. The predictions for the future suggest these extremes of weather in many parts of Australia will increase because of global warming.
Eastern Australia has already experienced five consecutive years of below-normal rainfall. Now, meteorologists are reporting signs of an El Nino, which brings warmer temperatures to the western Pacific and severe drought to Australia.
Prime Minister John Howard has released A0 million in drought relief for farms and promised more.
''If ever a country in a strong financial position owed something to some of its citizens, this nation owes to the farmers of Australia,'' Howard said.
''The essence of being an Australian includes the bush (rural Australia) being part of our existence,'' he said.
Howard is refering to the near-mythic image of Australian farmers, despite the sector accounting for less than three per cent of the country's annual A8 billion (0 billion) economic output.
But Hamilton said the drought offered an opportunity for a hard re-think of aid for unsustainable properties.
''We love to imagine ourselves to be stoic Aussies out there battling against the elements. But it's a very expensive way to maintain a national myth,'' Hamilton said.
Australian farms, many of them mixed crop and livestock operations or vast cattle and sheep properties, are 99 per cent family owned and employ 336,000 people, or 1.7 per cent of the 20 million population.
REFORM WATER USAGE Critics say many farmers are not doing enough to conserve water, using open ditches for irrigation and overstocking, in turn depleting grasses and creating dust bowls.
But the National Farmers Federation (NFF) argues it is a fallacy that Australian farmers are antiquated.
''Australian farmers have been adopting new technologies and improving practices with fervour,'' says an NFF spokesman.
Between 1949 and 1974, Australia built a huge water diversion and hydro-electric scheme, taking water from the eastern Alps through tunnels, dams and aqueducts out into the dry Murray-Darling plains for cotton, rice and fruit crops.
Bob Carr, a former New South Wales state premier, says some of those farms are now environmental catastrophes and pointed to large cotton growers sucking up vast amounts of water for their crops even during droughts.
Business leaders have called for a national water market and buy-back of over generous water rights allocated to cotton and rice properties.