Drought in Australia – How Bad is it and Why is it so Dry?

Farm Tender Aug 20, 2018

Drought is something most Australians are familiar with, especially those in rural areas and associated with the farming and livestock business. This is but natural given that the mean annual rainfall is less than 600mm across more than 80% of the continent.

Despite being surrounded by oceans, Australia is so dry because it falls under the subtropical high pressure belt. This belt pushes the air down instead of allowing the moisture-laden air from the surrounding oceans to rise and cause rainfall.

Added to this natural disadvantage, other complex factors known as climate drivers make things worse leading to a prolonged dry spell that leads to a severe drought.

A Few Facts on the Current Drought Situation in Australia

Throughout Australia, 2018 has been recorded as the fourth driest April to June season since 1900 as per the statistics maintained by the Bureau of Meteorology.

In Southern Australia, droughts in the early 21st century until this year have been the worst in the past four centuries.

Over the past three decades, there has been a significant decrease in rainfall between April to November in the southwest regions of Western Australia and the south-eastern regions of the continent.

South-eastern Australia has shown a steady decline of about 15% in rainfall during the late autumn to winter months and a 25% decline in rainfall during the April – May season.

The south-western part of Western Australia has similarly experienced a decline in rainfall during the winter season over the past thirty to forty decades.

Such steady decline has resulted in a significant reduction in stream flows by up to 60% in both the Murray-Darling basin in south-eastern Australia and south-west part of Western Australia.

By June 2018, 16.4% of New South Wales was declared severely drought affected, 46.6% was declared to be drought onset area and 36.3% was declared as susceptible to drought. This leaves only about 0.7% of the state that is either unaffected or recovering painstakingly from the onslaught of severe draught.

The summer of 2016-17 showed record-breaking heat waves in eastern regions of the continent too. This was followed by an extremely dry winter which further exacerbated the already existing drought-like situation.

In Queensland, the situation is particularly alarming. More than 87% of the state was declared as drought -affected in March 2017. Although the situation has slightly improved, as of May, 2018, 57.6% of the state is still considered to be under the impact of drought.

Why is it so Dry across Australia?

The drought this year is often compared to the Federation drought of 1902 when the Darling river almost went dry in New South Wales and almost all the wheat production was lost.

There are several reasons why the drought has almost peaked in 2018.

The typical climatic conditions that usually cause rain in New South Wales and other parts of Australia have not been active this year. During the summer, there is usually a feed of moisture-laden air from the tropics that travels down south and causes rain in Australia.

However, this year the moisture-laden air did not travel beyond the tropics. Instead, it ended up shedding all the moisture within the tropical belt.

Second, there has also been a significant decline in moisture-laden air from the Indian Ocean in the north-west. Some rain was recorded in March this year in the coast around Newcastle but that was too little and had little impact further inland or across the nation.

There are other climate drivers that work in conjunction with or counteract each other to cause rain in Australia. El Nino, a warm water current, is a factor the drives the major flow of air over the Pacific Ocean. It is commonly associated with causing drought in the eastern regions of Australia as it prevents moisture-laden air from rising up and causing rain.

As of June 2018, The Bureau of Meteorology has already declared a 50% chance of El Nino this coming spring, which means drier and warmer climatic conditions lie ahead.

How this is affecting the Australian Farm Industry

Farmers across Australia who have been traditionally tending to sheep and cattle have been worst-hit this year. Deficiency in rainfall means that the channels have dried up and there is not enough water for sheep and cattle to roam around and drink on their own.

Second, the price of hay has skyrocketed, forcing many farmers to ration the feed to keep their livestock alive.

Farmers who are being able to procure hay at such steep prices say that the cost of feed today is far higher than what they will get when they sell the stock.

Even then, whatever hay they can procure is insufficient for to maintaining all their livestock and many had to sell in order to reduce their stock and sustain at least some of them; which is very sad and painful.

The condition is so bad that well-rooted trees that have stood for centuries and resisted several droughts in the past; have been dying in huge numbers this year. This indicates how little moisture there is in the land and the little grass that is growing is hardly enough or nutrient-rich to keep livestock alive.

Looking Towards a Brighter Future

Despite all of this, the farmers are persevering and the government too is doing its best to control the situation and provide them some relief. It has been providing relief since 2014 through the Farm Household Allowance (FHA) which has been accessed by over 7,900 people till date.

Climate researchers and the meteorological department too are conducting extensive research in order to project more accurate climatic forecasts for the future. This will help farmers plan ahead for such severe conditions in the future so as to reduce the impact as much as possible.

The Australian government, in conjunction with several other agencies is working towards a programme that will not just provide short-term relief as a knee-jerk reaction but a strategy that will help farmers retain long-term sustainability and be ready for the next major drought.


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