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Weeks into Outbreak, CDC Still Not Invited to China; Australia Drought. Aired 1-2a ET

Aired February 14, 2020 - 01:00   ET



JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: -- tens of thousands infected. The global economy taking a hit in just two months. The coronavirus has made its mark now 1warning it could be with us for years to come. Part of that economic pain, one airline is not only cutting back flights, but1 forcing employees off the job. And did he say what he means and means what he says? Trump loyalists and U.S. Attorney General offers up what sounds like criticism of the president and his tweets, but is that really the case?

After two weeks at sea, refused permission from multiple countries to dock, passengers on board the cruise ship Westerdam are finally back on land. Not one confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was found on the ship, even so from Japan, to Taiwan, to Thailand. The Westerdam was turned away that is until Cambodia offered safe harbor.

Meantime, the virus' death toll has been revised and lowered to just below 1,400 and almost 64,000 cases of confirmed. In Japan, quarantine is set to end on Wednesday for the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has at least 219 confirmed cases. Some passengers considered at risk for infection, maybe like to finish the quarantine of the ship on Japanese soil.

CNN, Steven Jiang is standing by in Beijing with all the details on this, but also the details about what's happening with medical workers, those in particular on the front lines who are dealing with this day in and day out. Why don't we know how many of those people have been infected with the virus? Why is the government refusing to release those specific details?

STEVEN JIANG, CNN SENIOR PRODUCER: That's right, John. That's increasingly a concern. As you said, so far, the government both the national and the provincial health authorities have not broken down their data to say specifically how many healthcare workers have been infected.

Now, from some of the information released by local authorities as well as stay media, we understand, at least dozens had fallen victim to this deadly virus, and we've been talking to some of them on the ground in the past few days. And some of them telling us that the actual number could be much higher in the hundreds. And that also seems to be the sentiment expressed by some doctors and nurses on their social media pages. Now, if that's indeed the case, it wouldn't be shocking because

remember, during the SARS epidemic back in 2003, during the peak of that outbreak, almost 20 percent of all infections came from medical workers. Still, this situation with medical workers is very alarming because it really calls into question of the reliability of government data as well as the severity of the problem at the epicenter.

Now, we understand, for example, the government has been sending in more than 20,000 medical workers from the rest of the country to reinforce overworked to local doctors and nurses. So the protection of these medical workers obviously, very important. If we don't understand more about how they got infected, what happened, it's probably very concerning especially given the severity of the problem on the ground there, John.

VAUSE: OK, Steven, thank you. Steven Jiang there with the very latest from Beijing on the virus. Now, in Yokohama, Japan, the quarantined crew ship Diamond Princess has more than 200 confirmed cases of the virus, yet only a fraction of the 3,700 people on board have been tested. CNN's Will Ripley spoke with a young father who explains why he thinks everyone should be tested regardless of symptoms.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The numbers are kind of strange to me. I'm also worried because even though I trust my own health, I don't want to be like an invisible carrier. We are worried that we might be carrying then it will affect our daily lives when we will be go back. That's one of the major concern that we don't want to carrying it, and then we don't want to spread it in the communities.


VAUSE: You know, it's always said they're not to be the last time of pathogen jumps from animals to human with deadly consequences. The coronavirus is just another disease from a deadly list, which includes SARS, HIV, Ebola, and Anthrax. For more on this, we're joined now by David Quammen. He is in Hobart, Tasmania.

And David is a science writer and contributor to National Geographic and author of the book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, which you wrote a couple of years ago, David, but seems very timely right now. Good to have you with us.

DAVID QUAMMEN, AUTHOR, SPILLOVER: Good to be with you, John.

VAUSE: OK. This new strain of coronavirus is classified as a zoonoses virus there it is, which basically means that we know how it is spread. It is spread from animals to humans. But David, the question which follows from that is not just the fact that it does spread from animals to humans, but the actual the how part of it. And the answer to that seems follow the poop of horseshoe bats, right?

QUAMMEN: Well, yes. So although with each of these new viruses, you get a new virus that starts causing trouble in people and that you've never seen it before, so you know it must be a zoonosis, something that came from an animal. The first questions are which animal and how did it spill over into humans.

Now we know that with SARS coronavirus, and probably with this virus, the reservoir host, the animal that comes from ultimately is a horseshoe bat. The matter of how it's built over into humans is still a mystery. But it seems to have happened in that -- in that market in Wuhan, China, and it probably didn't go directly from a bad into 27 or 40 individual people who were first infected directly.


VAUSE: The coronavirus is also has the ability to quickly evolve. The genome has a high number of mutations or mistakes. And this process is known as intrinsic evolvability, another big word for our audience because we like to educate as well as informed here. And for wanting a better term, can this process sort of be described as natural selection on speed?

QUAMMEN: Well, yes, it can. As you said, these coronaviruses, they're one of the groups of viruses that have a very unstable genome. The genome is constantly changing, high mutation rate. And that high mutation rate provides raw material for evolution by natural selection. The intrinsic evolvability that you mentioned.

Meaning that these viruses have the potential to adapt quickly, move from an animal host into a human, adapt, be able to replicate in the human, be able to adapt further so that they can pass from one human to another. That's what makes coronaviruses and a few other groups of viruses, particularly dangerous, particularly high on the watch lists of the people who look out for the next of these things.

VAUSE: And the next of these things seems to be fairly predictable in the sense that because as we humans take over more and more of the planet and consume more and more of the planet. These epidemics will just become more frequent, right?

QUAMMEN: That's right. That's right. In our -- in our rich ecosystems, tropical forests and elsewhere, there are millions of different species of animals, plants, and bacteria. Each of those creatures, kinds of creatures carries its own viruses. So there are just millions of different kinds of viruses waiting potentially, to find new hosts.

Now, most of those, and viruses in plants or in bacteria are not likely to infect humans. But viruses that live in wild animals have the potential to jump to a different kind of an animal. And if they jump into humans, they've won the sweepstakes, because there are 7.7 billion of us. And if they can spread through us, they are very, very successful in evolutionary terms. And there's a constant push for them to do that.

VAUSE: What are we doing? What are we doing that we should be doing, that I assume we're not doing at the moment to try and stem this?

QUAMMEN: Well, we should be trying to educate people away from the notion that wild animals brought to the markets in China or anywhere else have a particular attraction, a particular vigor. In fact, wild animals bring a particular risk when we turn them into dietary items. Those institutions that are the disease watchdogs and responders need to be supported.

They need to have the resources to respond, to do the detective work, to do the containment work, to do the development of vaccines, to do all the forms of response to these sorts of outbreaks because this, whether this turns into a global pandemic, killing tens of thousands of people, or whether we get it under control in the next few months, whichever happens, this is only a warning about the next one. There will be another one of these in a few years and a few years after that. It's not the last. It's part of the pattern.

VAUSE: And with that in mind, the number of confirmed cases and the number of confirmed fatalities continues to rise each day. The mortality rate though is staying the same. It's around the two percent mark, which means 98 out of 100 people who get this virus will actually survive. But if the number of confirmed cases, you know, if it remains in the tens of thousands, you know, more than 65,000 right now, mortality is not a great concern.

But if this virus spreads, as you say, there's 7.7 billion people on the planet, if it spreads to millions or tens of millions of people, suddenly that mortality rate goes from, you know, thousands to tens of thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands, then this equation changes. And this is why I guess what, the ability to contain this virus at this point is so crucial.

QUAMMEN: That's right. That's right. As you say, it is thought that the case fatality rate, the mortality rate is just above two percent right now. Some people argue that those numbers might be wrong because they're hidden factors that make that arithmetic not reliable. But say it is reliable, then you expand this into a global pandemic two percent. Well, it's much lower than SARS but we contained SARS and only some 770 people died.

If this goes across numerous continents and becomes a global pandemic with millions of cases, then if it stays at two percent mortality, that starts to kill a whole lot of people. It becomes a cataclysmic major event. Two percent is much higher, for instance, than influenza. So, this could -- it's very hard to predict. This could turn out to be a very, very bad pandemic, or it could turn out to be a fire drill for us.


VAUSE: And that's a good point to leave on, David, because this is a warning, I guess, in so many ways that we have sort of, maybe let our guard down a bit when it comes to sort of viruses. But I guess we'll see what happens in the coming weeks and the next couple of months. But David, thanks so much for being with us.

QUAMMEN: You're very welcome.

VAUSE: Well, fear of the virus in a huge fall on the number of travelers has seen the vast majority of international carriers either reduce or suspend all flights to China. Cathay Pacific has not only cut flights but it's also asking all employees to take unpaid leave. The airline was already reeling from the fallout of months of unrest in Hong Kong because of anti-government protests. Now many employees are worried layoffs could soon be next. Here's CNN Reporter Kristie Lu Stout.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cathay Pacific would like to take you on a tour of Asia.

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Frequent fliers of Cathay Pacific may love or loathe the classic ads from decades ago, promoting award-winning service and gorgeous flight attendants from, and I quote, ten Asian lands. Today, this Hong Kong-born flight attendant has an expression you cannot see.

She wears a mask during the outbreak and to protect her identity as she speaks frankly about keeping her job using the pseudonym Emily.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Worrying that there might be redundancy or even -- yes, redundancy is the worse.

STOUT: Emily has been a Cathay cabin crew member for seven years. She enjoys her job, but fears for the future. Cathay usually flies about 34 million passengers every year, serving over 200 cities around the world from its hub at Hong Kong International Airport. The outbreak has hammered Cathay Pacific and the global airline industry. Passengers canceled their travel plans and governments impose travel restrictions against recent visitors to mainland China. And let's say the industry could get hit harder than SARS which costs global airlines $7 billion.

The collapse in passenger numbers has forced Cathay to slash flights worldwide by 30 percent and flights to mainland China by a whopping 90 percent. Cathay initially took a neutral stance as the protest began. Then Chinese state media slammed the airline's workers for taking part in what it called illegal demonstrations. Beijing banned in Cathay staff involved in the protest from flying into China. Cathay's former CEO and Chief Commercial Officer resigned, and the culture of fear to cold as the airline crackdown on stuff involved the demonstrations.

Workers tell CNN many were fired. Cathay says dismissals were all made within regulations, yet despite all the turmoil and let's say the airlines long term prospects are positive.

GEOFFREY THOMAS, EDITOR IN CHIEF, AIRLINERATINGS.COM: They are the major airline in one of the great hubs of the world. So while they'll take a bad battering, they will bounce back. In SARS, they laid off staff when they had a 40 percent cut in capacity over about an eight week period. Then in 2009, when the global financial crisis hit, again, like 17,000 staff to take four weeks unpaid leave. So it's not unusual for Cathay.

STOUT: But as the current outbreak drags on, businesses are struggling to deal with the financial turbulence caused by the coronavirus. Cathay is asking its 27,000 employees to take three weeks off without pay without mention of layoffs. In a statement, the airline says in view of the novel coronavirus, outbreak and also significant drop in market demand, we announced massive capacity cuts. Preserving cash is the key to protecting our business. Emily says she will take the offer fearing she could be let go.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm afraid if I don't participate or if not enough people participating in it, there might be more measures to be put in place in order to use the management terms pre-serving cash.

STOUT: Back in the day, Cathay Pacific promise an experience for its passengers to --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Arrive in better shape.

STOUT: It's a message the iconic airline needs now more than ever is Hong Kong struggles with uncertainty. Kristie Lu Stout, CNN, Hong Kong.



VAUSE: Donald Trump is our post impeachment tear, but one of his favorite enablers, the Attorney General is telling to turn down the tweets. That's next.


VAUSE: In the U.S. Senate, they passed a new resolution limiting President Trump's war powers when it comes to Iran. This is incredibly rare. It passed with bipartisan support. Eight Republicans voted in favor, even though Trump is against it. The resolution would block Mr. Trump from ordering strikes on Iran in the future unless there is an imminent attack. The White House is threatened to veto the measure. It's unlikely though to get enough votes in the Senate in another time to override a presidential veto.

Now, what seems like, it sounds like rare public criticism of Donald Trump from members of his cabinet. The Attorney General William Pelham Barr rebuked the President on Thursday for his tweets and public comments on the Justice Department and judges at legal cases. It all revolves around longtime Trump advisor and convicted felon Roger Stone.

The President tweeted that a recommended seven to nine-year prison sentence for Stone was too harsh. Barr stepped in and scaled back that recommendation but he says he was not influenced by the President's comments.



WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL, UNITED STATES: To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the -- in the department that we're doing our work with integrity. I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.


VAUSE: The President himself has been remarkably solid on those claims by his attorney general, but the White House says Trump is not bothered by those comments. We have more now from CNN's Kaitlan Collins.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: White House officials seem caught off guard by that interview that Bill Barr did publicly challenging the president and saying that his tweets make his job impossible to do, and telling the president he should stop tweeting about ongoing criminal cases at the Justice Department. But they did put out a statement later that said, the President had full confidence and Bill Barr to continue doing his job and that they believe that Bill Barr is able to air his opinions just as everyone else is.

But of course, the question is going to be when we hear reaction from the President himself, who has not weighed in yet, and of course, oftentimes, the President's views of an event are shaped by the coverage of this. And we know this is a president who does not like to be criticized, certainly not publicly and certainly not by one of his own cabinet officials in the way that Bill Barr did, though questions still remain whether or not the President was aware that Barr was going to sit down for this interview to talk about this case.

Now, Bill Barr said in an interview that he believed the President put him in an untenable position by tweeting about Roger Stone's recommended sentencing before the Justice Department had a chance to overrule it. But now he has put the president in a similarly impossible position because he's stuck essentially between someone who is one of his favorite cabinet members who is carrying out the agenda he wants, but also dealing with someone who publicly criticized him in a way that was incredibly defiant and surprised many people around the president.

And we are still waiting to see what exactly it is the President is going to say about this or if he'll let it slide. Kaitlan Collins, CNN, the White House.


VAUSE: Michael Genovese is the President of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and he is with us this hour. So, Michael, good to see you. I want to start with, you know, one reason why the President is not bothered by what Barr said. I want you to listen very closely to this part of the interview where Barr was talking about the president intervening in the Roger Stone sentencing. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARR: I had made a decision that I thought was fair and reasonable in this particular case. And once the tweet occurred, the question as well, now what do I do?


VAUSE: So it's a timeline here. Barr admitted he decided to intervene before the president tweeted. If you look at these comments, in that timeline, it could be argued that Bill Barr is rebuking the president for tweeting about the case and bringing publicity to the case, not necessarily for intervening in the case, right?

MICHAEL GENOVESE, POLITICAL ANALYST: Now, I think that's right. I think what Mr. Barr saying is, look, I need a little bit of room if I'm going to do your bidding. I need a little bit of space. I'm already your pet poodle. I'm already doing everything you want. And if we're going to keep shattering the guardrails of democracy, you can't shine a spotlight on it.

We've got to do that in the still at night, and keep it under wraps. I'll do your bidding. But don't put public pressure on me. So I think he just wants a little bit of room. Because the unthinkable is now quick thinkable. In fact, it's an everyday occurrence. And those Republicans who in the Senate voted against impeachment and conviction saying, oh, well, you know, he's learned his lesson.

Those people now, there -- it's quite embarrassing to them because it's like they're -- you know, they're saying, you know, I'm shocked that there's gambling at Rick's. Well, everybody knew what was going to go on. And Mr. Barr is right in line with and there's no separation between himself and the president.

VAUSE: Always like a reference to Casablanca where you get that in, so well done. Trump likes the Attorney General Barr a whole lot more than his first Attorney General. That was Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you had picked William Barr instead of Jeff Sessions when you --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, my life would have been a lot easier.


VAUSE: And after Sessions rightly recused himself from the very beginning from all things Russia, Trump would often ask in anger and frustration, where's my Roy Cohn? A notorious New York lawyer who was a lawyer to the mob? Here's how Cohen is described in a recent documentary.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roy Cohn's contempt for people, his contempt for the law was so evident on his face, and you knew the word the presence of evil.



VAUSE: You have the President of the United States saying he doesn't want an attorney general who would hold up the law, but rather who would bend it or test it for him whenever he wanted, right?

GENOVESE: You know, the good news about President Trump is he often just has no filter and says whatever comes into his mind. And that was just so revealing about who Donald Trump is, what his goals are and how he operates. If you want a Roy Cohn, you want a pitbull, you want someone who will step on people, who will crush them, who doesn't have the limits on the rule of -- from the rule of law or from even decency. That's what you want. That's what he's trying to get.

VAUSE: And what we're hearing also is some rare criticism, I guess, if you like from the former White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly. This is in reference to the defense of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman who was subpoenaed by Democrats to testify in the impeachment hearings. He overheard that you know, so-called perfect Ukraine phone call. On Friday, he was frogmarched out of the White House. His crime it seems was doing his job.

And Kelly told the Atlantic, having seen something questionable, Vindman probably notified his superiors. When subpoenaed by Congress in the House impeachment hearings, Vindman complied and told the truth. He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave. He went to his boss and told him what he just heard.

In Trump world, there is no higher duty it seems rather than protecting the president. And so Kelly was on the receiving end of some angry tweets. Here's one of them. "When I terminated John Kelly, which I couldn't do fast enough, he knew full well that he was way over his head. Being Chief of Staff just wasn't for him. He came in with a bang went out with a whimper, but like so many X's he misses the action and just can't keep his mouth shut.

Really, though, from Kelly, this seems to be kind of just a bit too late. The time to speak out for him was the moment he was fired.

GENOVESE: Well, you know, the President can't keep his mouth shut. He has kept his mouth shut for the most part, since he was unceremoniously pushed out of the White House. But I think when President Trump went after the lieutenant colonel for doing his job, for doing the right thing for obeying the rules, for doing exactly what he was taught to do, I think that was a bridge too far for General Kelly. And I think he almost felt like he had to come out and opened up about that.

The problem is the opened up about several other things. And so once you open that door to criticizing Trump, a whole slew of things are going to come out. And General Kelly knows Donald Trump, how he operates, and I think he's got a lot of beans to spill if that's what he wants to do.

VAUSE: Our thanks there to Michael Genovese. Coming up here, despite Beijing saying the leading U.S. Disease Control Agency will be welcome to come to China, there's still no official invitation. How Sanjay Gupta talk to the CDC director who had a very sobering warning. That's next.



VAUSE: Welcome back. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

I'm John Vause with the headlines this hour.

The White House says President Trump is not bothered by new criticism from his attorney general. William Barr claims the President's tweets and public comments about the Justice Department, judges as well as legal cases have made it impossible for him to do his job.

The U.S. Senate has passed a resolution to curb President Trump's war powers on Iran. Eight Republicans voted in favor even though President Trump is against it. The measure would block him from ordering a new strike on Iran unless there is an imminent attack. The White House has threatened to veto.

Passengers are finally able to disembark the cruise ship Westerdam after two weeks stranded at sea. No one on the ship had the coronavirus but it was still turned away from multiple ports until Cambodia agreed to allow the ship to dock.

In China nearly 1,400 have died from the disease among 64,000 confirmed cases. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is warning that the virus is likely to impact the world for months to come and possibly beyond this year.

CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, spoke to the head of the CDC.


DR. ROBERT REDFIELD, DIRECTOR, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: You know, this is going to, you know, obviously be a significant investment.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: On the same day the CDC confirmed a 15th U.S. coronavirus case, I went inside the agency's emergency operation center with director, Dr. Robert Redfield.

How good is the public health infrastructure at reporting in?

To give you an idea of how rapidly the situation is changing. by the way the numbers changed I can tell you that's actually 15 there.

It's a lot to keep up with.

What is the worst-case scenario here in the United States?

REDFIELD: So far we've been able to contain it but I think this virus is probably with us, beyond this season or beyond this year. And I think eventually the virus will find a foothold and we will get community-based transmission.

And you can start to think of it in the sense of like seasonal flu. The only difference is we don't understand this virus.

GUPTA: Which is exactly why the CDC wants to be on the ground in China. It's probably Redfield's biggest frustration.

REDFIELD: Right now there's no evidence to me that this outbreak is at all under control. It's definitely not controlled. And the sooner we can help them get this under control, the better for the whole world.

GUPTA: So I guess that does raise the question why are we sitting here in Atlanta talking about this, versus the CDC being in China collecting some of this data?

REDFIELD: I don't think it's a medical decision that we are not being invited in.

GUPTA: What do you think it is? .

REDFIELD: I think it's above the medical --

GUPTA: You think it's a political decision? .

REDFIELD: I think it's above the medical. I don't think the director of CDC is making that decision.

GUPTA: You think it's a political decision.

REDFIELD: I think -- all I can say is I think it's above the director of CDC because I know he would love to have us assist them.

GUPTA: China has accepted help from the World Health Organization. The CDC is waiting to hear whether it's going to be a part of that team.

In the meantime, Redfield says his priority is to keep Americans safe.

REDFIELD: Our whole issue right now is, as I said, aggressive containment to try to give us more time that it's going to take, you know, one to two years to get that, probably develop an out to prepare the health systems, to be able to be flexible enough to deal with the potential, second major cause of respiratory illness.


VAUSE: Thanks to Sanjay Gupta there for that report.

Now, the U.S. is renewing a temporary license for Huawei that allows U.S. companies and the Chinese tech giant to do business. At the time -- at the same time rather, Huawei has been slapped with three new charges in a U.S. federal court, including racketeering and conspiracy to sell trade secrets.

And on top of that the U.S. is accusing Huawei of helping Iranian security services to spy on protesters during anti government demonstrations in 2009. Huawei claims prosecutors have repackaged old charges which never led to significant penalties.


VAUSE: Sudan says it will pay $30 million to the victims and families of the suicide bombings on the USS Cole. Al Qaeda attacked the warship almost 20 years ago when it was in a port in Yemen, killing 17 sailors and wounding dozens more.

In 2014 a U.S. court found Sudan provided aid to al Qaeda although they denied doing so. Sudan's prime minister says the $30 million is payment for Sudan's removal from the U.S. list of terror sponsors and to normalize relations.

And a surprise shakeup in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's cabinet. U.K. Finance Minister Sajid Javid has resigned after being told he had to replaces entire team of political advisers. Javid will be replaced by Rishi Sunak, a conservative MP, who previously served as chief secretary to the treasury.

The Prime Minister announced a new economic advisory board that would be split between his office and Sunak's.

Well, in some parts of Australia it's a rare sight -- a week of torrential rain helping to contain one of the worst bush fire seasons on record, but not enough to compensate the years of drought. More on that in a moment.


VAUSE: After months of a bushfire season for the record books, parts of Australia are getting a break, a week of torrential rain. Fire authorities in New South Wales say all the bush fires in their region or now contained.

But the rain has created other problems -- be careful what you wish for. Storms have caused flooding that brought damaging winds and forced evacuations in a number of small towns.

Despite the recent downpours parts of Australia are still in drought and have been so for years. And it's those drought conditions which have helped fuel those deadly bush fires.

CNN's Andrew Stevens takes us to one town that before the recent storms had not seen a decent downpour in three years.


ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's 8:00 at the Royal Hotel in Murrurundi and the mercury is hovering at 42 degrees Celsius, the locals are gathering at one of their favorite watering holes in a town where there is no water.

What's it like living here in a town with no water?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, you drink beer.

STEVENS: The laconic humor of the Australian bush though doesn't hide the fact that the drought here is deadly serious. The river in this town of a thousand people four hours northwest of Sydney hasn't run for more than two years. Away from the sleepy Main Street, public spaces and backyards are becoming dust balls.

This is what keeps Murrurundi alive now -- trucking water in.

Matt Byrne (ph) drives 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week delivering the precious commodity and he says he will keep doing it until the drought breaks.


STEVENS: Behind me is the original reservoir which is now just too low to pump. So the town is relying on this small pond here. Now without these trucks constantly re-supplying this pond would be used up in just about three days leaving the town completely without water.

It's not just outback Australia. Sheep and cattle country within an hour of Sydney is also bone-dry. James Galbraith and his father Bill farm land that has been in the family since the 1800s.

BILL GALBRAITH, FARMER: Well, this is as bad as it's ever got -- this drought.

STEVENS: This was the farm two years ago before the drought took hold and what it looks like now.

JAMES GALBRAITH, FARMER: It's not just dry on the surface, it's dry right the way down. So what we're seeing is trees suffering as well as the pastures. And so for us as farmers we're just sort of holding on.

STEVENS: James has been forced to sell nearly all his stock and now works four days a week on another farm to make ends meet.

Southeast Australia, the most heavily populated part of the country, is in the grip of one of the worst droughts in living memory. The rains haven't come for nearly three years.

Australia has endured many cycles of drought but this time it's different. More and more Australians are blaming climate change not the natural cycle for the crippling water shortages.

SCOTT MORRISON, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: I've always acknowledge the link as has the minister (ph) between the broader issues of global climate change and what that means for the world's weather and the dryness of conditions in many places.

TIM FLANNERY, CLIMATE SCIENTIST: The overwhelming majority of Australians see climate change as a real problem, see climate change as a man-made problem and say that something should be done about it.

ANDREWS: Professor Frank Jotzo is director of the Center for Climate and Energy Policy at the Australian National University. The problem he says is breaking Australia's economic dependence on fossil fuels.

They account for 25 percent of total exports and provide 80 percent of the country's electricity. It's a stark challenge for conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison who once stood to before parliament and declared "this is coal, don't be afraid".

Morrison's hard line on protecting fossil fuel industries has been sharply criticize nationally and internationally. But he maintained only last week Australia has the right balance between the economy and the environment.

Is Scott Morrison in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry?

FLANNERY: The Prime Minister and his party are paying very strong emphasis to the interests of the fossil fuel industry and in particular the Australian coal industry.

STEVENS: With an area the size of West Virginia already scorched and the fires still burning, the stark reality of Australia's vulnerability to global warming has never been clearer.

Andrew Stevens, CNN -- Canberra, Australia.


VAUSE: Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM.

I'm John Vause.

Please stay with us. "WORLD SPORT" starts after a short break.