Shortcuts / 29 October 2019

Drought in Australia

It’s no secret Australia is in drought. In this episode, we look at how bad this one actually is, and what’s being done to help.

What is a drought?
The Bureau of Meteorology defines drought as ‘a prolonged, abnormally dry period when the amount of available water is insufficient to meet our normal use’. Put simply, drought occurs when there’s not enough rain.

What causes a drought?
Sea-surface temperatures impact rainfall patterns. 

Australia’s rainfall is influenced by two major drivers – the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD).

The ENSO relates to what’s happening in the Pacific Ocean (to the east of Australia). El Niño is often associated with low rainfall (and La Niña with high rainfall). Meanwhile, the IOD covers the Indian Ocean to the west of Australia. These measures, which look at the flow of cold and warm water currents in the oceans. Sea surface temperatures can impact rainfall and temperature patterns over Australia, with warmer areas of the ocean a source for convection which is associated with cloudiness and rainfall.

Currently in Australia we have a strong positive IOD while the ENSO remains neutral.

Australia has a history of droughts…
Indeed it does. We are after all the land of droughts and flooding rains… Two droughts worthy of a call out are:

The Federation Drought – considered Australia’s worst drought on record, this took place from 1895 to 1903. Much of the country received less than 40% of its average rainfall, and 1902 was our driest year on record. One quote from a CSIRO researcher is particularly terrifying – “In NSW, most rivers stopped flowing. Dust storms filled dams, buried homesteads and created ghost towns as people fled.” – Dr Robert Godfree.

It also resulted in enormous stock losses across the country – some reports suggest as much as 50% . And it was a significant game changer in Australia’s development and history, particularly when it came to land ownership as big station owners (aka the squattocracy) failed. 

The Millennium Drought – this struck between 2001 and 2009. This devastated communities across the south-east and south-west of Australia, and was responsible for widespread crop failures, livestock losses, and bushfires. It also brought changes to Australia’s water management systems.

So where does the current drought fit in?
It’s up there in terms of severity. The latest numbers from the Bureau of Meteorology show the current drought:

• Is spread across the country, and is especially severe in the north of NSW and southern Queensland. 

• Australia’s total rainfall during the 2018–19 financial year was 24% below average.

• What makes the current drought a standout is the temperature. The last 12 months have seen record-high daily temperatures reached around the nation, and 18-19 was the second-warmest financial year on record. 

The high temperatures is important to note because a hotter climate means an increase in water evaporation, which means drier soils and thirstier livestock. 

In short, these higher temperatures are increasing the drought threat and putting an even greater strain on our depleted water storages and making it comparable to the Federation drought for severity. 

What has the economic cost been?
The Reserve Bank has warned the drought is weighing on Australia’s economic growth. And the latest data on the value of farm production is forecast to decline by 5% to A$59 billion in 2019–20. That comes after three years of declining conditions for the agricultural sector. 

Ag and related industries are an important sector to Australia. It contributes about 3% of our total gross domestic product. It directly employs about 2.6 of the workforce and indirectly supports many more – and it’s the role it plays in sustaining rural, regional and remote communities that is particularly notable. 

So what is being done to support farmers and rural communities?
The one thing they need – rain – can’t be provided. No one can make it rain. 

But governments at all levels have a longstanding role in supporting those affected. And there’s a long history of how it works, but the most recent National Drought Agreement was signed by the Commonwealth, states and territories in December 2018. 

That agreement sets out a joint approach to drought preparedness, responses and recovery – it says it has a focus on accountability and transparency.

Put simply, the Federal Drought Minister David Littleproud says the division of responsibilities are that the Commonwealth looks after the wellbeing of farmers (through things like income support, loans and counselling) while the states and territories look after transport concessions, fodder, and animal welfare.

How has the Commonwealth Government responded?
PM Scott Morrison says his highest priority is drought relief. To coordinate the response, the government has appointed a Coordinator-General for Drought, Major General Stephen Day, DSC, AM, who works through a Joint Agency Drought Taskforce in the Prime Minister’s department. So far, the federal government has provided more than $7 billion in assistance and concessional loans to support those affected by drought.

What are farmers and rural communities saying about the response?
As the drought drags on, frustrations are growing. Critics say the Coalition’s handling looks ad hoc and reactive, and it needs to be better coordinated with the state governments.

National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson also says she doesn’t think the government has a drought policy, and has presented one as a suggestion. 

What else is making them angry?
The price of water. Which is a whole Shortcut of its own… Suffice to say the price of water is at record highs, farmers are finding it difficult to secure supply, and there a lot of contention about how our big river systems are being managed to balance farmers concerns with environmental factors. 

And what’s going on with water shortages?
There are almost 100 towns in northern and inland New South Wales and southern Queensland that have been in drought since 2016 and have severely depleted river and dam levels. And we’re not talking about small towns – regional centres like Dubbo, Armidale, Tamworth are affected. The Macquarie River in NSW is forecast to run dry by November which will leave Cobar, Nyngan and Narromine high and dry. Forbes, Cowra and Parkes are on watchout. In Tenterfield, the local council is looking into using recycled water for drinking supplies.  

Squiz recommends:
Instagram page – Buy From the Bush
National Museum – Federation Drought

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