Senior government officials in Victoria are warning residents of towns on the Murray River that they could become the first Australians to be displaced by climate change.   The region has suffered at the hands of a long-running drought that many scientists and politicians have blamed on global warming.  The very dry conditions have restricted the flow of water into a river that is part of the Murray-Darling Basin, which provides much of Australia's food, prompting dire warnings about the future.

Flows into the once mighty Murray River have fallen significantly, in recent years.   Its health is indelibly linked to the prosperity of many large agricultural towns in southeastern Australia.

A senior Victorian government official has warned that the Murray River crisis is so severe that those living near its banks are "pretty close" to becoming "Australia's first climate-change refugees."

Victoria Premier John Brumby is fighting with neighboring South Australia for the right to extract more water from the Murray, to help beleaguered farmers.

Brumby is warning that, if he does not get his way, some towns could wither and die.

"All of those places would lose investment and jobs and people and population," he said.  "If you just go open slather [have a free-for-all] and allow governments into the market, what you're going to do is devastate irrigation communities in country Victoria and I'm not going to stand by and see those country communities devastated."

Australia's federal government is pursuing a conservation plan to help the ailing Murray River, but admits that its efforts to replenish flows will take time.

Squabbles between state governments in southeast Australia about the amount of water their farmers are allowed to use to irrigate crops remain major problems.

Glenn Milne, the mayor of Mildura - a city of 30,000 people that lies on the banks of the Murray - says it is not only the lack of rainfall that has harmed the river but also mismanagement of its flows by environmental officials.

"The drought has affected us - that's in our wheat farming belt - but the actual water availability in the Murray that has got a lot to do with poor management practices over a number of years.  If they had have been managed the same as they were in the '70s, we would only be going into restrictions now," he said.  "So, there is a number of issues that have impacted.  Yes, if we'd have had more rain things would be better but it is not the only thing that has impacted us."

Other parts of Australia are also vulnerable.   Unlike towns near the Murray River, communities along Queensland's popular Gold Coast are threatened by rising sea levels.

Much of the region south of Brisbane is low-lying and exposed to serious flooding with residents facing the real prospect of being forced to move.

The city council is spending millions boosting its coastal defenses and has brought in tough controls on new developments, although it admits that some areas cannot be protected.

Councillor Peter Young says storm surges and rising sea levels pose serious threats.

"We accept that climate change is a reality.   We are very susceptible on the eastern coast.   The Gold Coast is probably the most vulnerable city in the whole of Australia and the kind of mapping that I've seen come from reliable sources is quite frightening," said Young.  " A lot of the development that is already in existence in this city and no doubt other coastal cities, it was built before we have the knowledge that we have now and there isn't a lot we can do in some cases to make those properties less vulnerable."

Australia is one of the world's worst per capita emitters of greenhouse gases, thanks largely to an economy that has a heavy reliance on cheap coal.

Although not everyone believes that a shifting climate is the result of man's excesses, most Australians think that behavior has to change.   A long-standing drought and water restrictions in most major cities and regional farming areas have helped to focus their minds on the environment.

Owen Pascoe, from the Australian Conservation Foundation, says the country has the ability to develop renewable energy supplies and emerge from this crisis with its prosperity intact.   

"Australia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, because of things like our coastal areas and our reliance on the Murray-Darling basin for our agricultural production," said Pascoe.  "We really are on the frontline of climate change but we're also one of the countries that has some of the best opportunities to succeed and do well and grow green-collar jobs and green-collar businesses, if we do take strong action."

Scientists have said that the Australian continent is particularly vulnerable to the effects of a shifting climate.  There have been warnings that bushfires, droughts and tropical storms were likely to become more common and increasingly severe in the coming decades.