Australia: Extreme Weather Update


Australia: Now It’s Wild Weather


How drought is affecting water supply in Australia’s capital cities


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Western Sydney University

The level of water stored by Australia’s capital cities has steadily fallen over the last six years. They are now collectively at 54.6% of capacity – a decline of 30% from 2013.

We’re going into a hot summer and Sydney has just announced level 2 restrictions, the toughest for any capital. Data from the Bureau of Meteorology shows other capital cities facing mixed results.

The results show that Darwin’s water supply has lost about 25% over the last year. On the plus side, Melbourne’s supply actually increased over 2019, having fallen below 50% earlier this year, and now sits on 63.9%.

While the national average is trending downwards, the patterns for each city are very different. Sydney and Perth water supplies have had contrasting journeys over the last six years. In October 2013 Perth’s supply was a very low 33.8% and Sydney was a comfortable 91%.

Now, for the first time in many years Perth does not have Australia’s lowest level of all capital city water storages. As of last week, Sydney has taken this unwanted distinction from Perth.

For Perth residents, the news is good as their surface water storages are at a six-year high of 46.4%. In Sydney they are worried, as they have a six-year low of 46.2%.

Sydney has experienced a steep decline over the last 30 months, from nearly full storages (96%) in April 2017. The speed and severity of the Sydney drought is starting to resemble previous dry spells. One was in the 1940s and the other was the Millennium drought.

Perth has lived with the most water stress of any capital city. They have had to contend with a steady 45-year decline in rain. The inflow of water into Perth’s dams has also fallen dramatically.

Perth has adapted to its drying climate by sourcing water from many different supplies. It now uses its surface water storages for about 10% of its water supply. Much larger proportions of Perth’s supply comes from its two desalination plants, which unlike the other capitals are constantly in operation. It makes greater use of groundwater and highly treated recycled water. Perth also has permanent water restrictions.

Sydney’s desalination plant, after hibernating for 7 years, is now supplying water. It was switched on in late January 2019 when Sydney supply hit 60%, and can supply 15% of water demand. Unusually perhaps, the desalinated water does not reach all parts of Sydney.

Sydney Water has announced plans to double the capacity of the desalination plant. Construction is expected to begin soon.

Melbourne and Brisbane water supplies are currently at similar levels. However, since 2013 Melbourne’s storages have generally been lower than Brisbane’s. Melbourne’s supply has risen in 2019 after good winter rainfall in its catchments. The storages have increased from under 50% (49.6%) in late May 2019. Today, Brisbane storage levels are now at 59.2%.

Melbourne residents use less water than the other capital cities. In 2018 the average Melbourne resident used 161 litres per day, approximately 30% less than Sydney residents.

Melbourne’s supplies have also been supplemented with the reactivation of its Wonthaggi desalination plant in 2019. It is Australia’s largest desalination plant, capable of producing 410 million litres a day.




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Brisbane also built a desalination plant after the Millennium Drought. In addition, they also made very large investments in Australia’s largest waste water recycling scheme. The Western Corridor recycled water scheme opened in 2008, cost $2.5 billion and features three advanced waste water treatment plants, with more than 200 km of pipelines and three advanced waste water treatment plants.

Hobart, Darwin and Canberra are the three Australian capital cities without desalination plants. Canberra has had a steady decline in its supply over three years. It was full in October 2016, gradually dropping to 51.6% in November 2019. Hobart’s storages were above 80% for most of the last six years. They were just above 90% 12 months ago and have since fallen to their current level of 72%.




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Darwin’s water supply was full as recently as April 2018. Now, 18 months later, it is just touching 54%. This is its lowest level in six years. Darwin, our tropical capital, has the most seasonal rainfall of Australia’s capitals. Typically, they have almost no rain June to September during their dry season, and a wet season of heavy rains from October to April.
However, the last wet season was one of the driest on record.

Adelaide’s water storage has fluctuated over the last 6 years. Adelaide gets more rain in winter and has dry summers, an opposite pattern to that of Darwin. Over the last 3 years the level has dropped from over 97% in October 2017 to just below 58%.




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The desalination plant in Adelaide can supply up to 50% of its water supply. It has been operating in 2019, although not in the wetter months of July and August. The Murray also continues to supply a large proportion of Adelaide’s water supply. The Commonwealth has agreed to use drought funding for the Adelaide desalination plant, so more river water can be used by farmers upstream to grow fodder for livestock.

Australia is set for a dryer and hotter summer than average, particularly in the east. Coupled with continued high levels of household demand, we can expect further declines in water storage levels through the first half of 2020.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Research Lecturer in Geochemistry, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A hot and dry Australian summer means heatwaves and fire risk ahead


Catherine Ganter, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Summer is likely to start off hot and dry, according to the Bureau of Meteorology’s summer outlook, released today.

Much of eastern Australia is likely to be hotter and drier than average, driven by the same climate influences that gave us a warmer and drier than average spring.




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But these patterns will break down over summer, meaning these conditions may ease for some areas in the second half of the season. Despite this, we’re still likely to see more fires, heatwaves, and dust across eastern Australia in the coming months.

Rainfall outlook for December 2019.
BOM

What drove the climate in 2019

Our current weather comes in the context of a changing climate, which is driving a drying trend across southern Australia and general warming across the country.

In southern Australia, rain during the April to October “cool season” is crucial to fill dams and grow crops and pasture. However, like 17 of the previous 20 cool seasons, 2019 was well below average, meaning a dry landscape leading into the summer months.

The frequency of high temperatures has also increased at all times of year, with the greatest increase in spring.

But summer, like spring, will also be influenced by two other significant climate drivers: a change in ocean temperatures in the Indian Ocean, and warm winds above Antarctica pushing our weather systems north.

Indian Ocean

The first driver is a near-record strong positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). A positive IOD occurs when warmer than average water develops near the Horn of Africa, and cooler waters emerge off Indonesia.

This pattern draws moisture towards Africa – where in recent weeks they have seen flooding and landslides – and produces higher pressures over central and southern Australia. This means less rain for Australia in winter and spring.

Usually the IOD events break down by early summer, when the monsoon arrives in the southern hemisphere. However, this year the monsoon has been very sluggish moving south – in fact it was the latest retreat on record from India – and international climate models suggests the positive IOD may not end until January.

Rainfall outlook for summer 2019-20.
BOM

Southern Ocean

The other unusually persistent climate driver is a negative Southern Annular Mode (SAM), which means weather systems over the Southern Ocean – the fronts and lows and wild winds – are further north than usual. This means more days of westerly winds for Australia.

In western Tasmania, where those winds are coming off the ocean, it means cooler and wetter weather. In contrast, in southeast Queensland and New South Wales, where westerlies blow across long fetches of land, this air is dry and hot.

This persistent period of negative SAM in 2019 was triggered by a sudden warming of the stratosphere above Antarctica – a rare event identified in early September.




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Models suggest the negative SAM will decay in December. This means the second half of summer is less likely to be influenced by as many periods of these strong westerlies.

But while both these dry climate drivers are expected to be gone by midsummer, their legacy will take some time to fade.

The positive IOD and the dry conditions we have seen in winter and spring are associated with severe fire seasons for southeast Australia in the following summer.

And while the drying influences are likely to ease, the temperature outlook indicates that days are very likely to remain warmer than average.

We also know that any delay in the monsoon will keep air drier for longer across Australia, and potentially aid in heating up the continent.

Maximum temperature outlook for summer 2019-20.
BOM

What about the wet season?

For areas of southern Queensland and northeastern NSW, the wet season will eventually bring seasonal rains, although heatwaves are likely to continue through summer.

So, while the outlook for below average rainfall may ease over summer months for some areas, the lead-up to summer means Australia’s landscape is already very dry. Even a normal summer in the south will mean little easing of the dry until at least autumn.

With dry and hot conditions looking likely this summer, it’s important to stay safe, have an emergency plan in place, look after your friends and neighbours in the hot times, and always listen to advice from your local emergency services.




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You can visit the Bureau of Meteorology website to view the latest outlook, or subscribe to receive climate outlooks via email.The Conversation

Catherine Ganter, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew B. Watkins, Head of Long-range Forecasts, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze


Multiple large, intense fires are stretching from Australia’s coast to the tablelands and parts of the interior.
AAP Image/Supplied, JPSS

Ross Bradstock, University of Wollongong and Rachael Helene Nolan, Western Sydney University

Last week saw an unprecedented outbreak of large, intense fires stretching from the mid-north coast of New South Wales into central Queensland.

The most tragic losses are concentrated in northern NSW, where 970,000 hectares have been burned, three people have died, and at least 150 homes have been destroyed.

A catastrophic fire warning for Tuesday has been issued for the Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter, Shoalhaven and Illawarra areas. It is the first time Sydney has received a catastrophic rating since the rating system was developed in 2009.

No relief is in sight from this extremely hot, dry and windy weather, and the extraordinary magnitude of these fires is likely to increase in the coming week. Alarmingly, as Australians increasingly seek a sea-change or tree-change, more people are living in the path of these destructive fires.




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Unprecedented state of emergency

Large fires have happened before in northern NSW and southern Queensland during spring and early summer (for example in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2002, and 2018 in northern NSW). But this latest extraordinary situation raises many questions.

It is as if many of the major fires in the past are now being rerun concurrently. What is unprecedented is the size and number of fires rather than the seasonal timing.

The potential for large, intense fires is determined by four fundamental ingredients: a continuous expanse of fuel; extensive and continuous dryness of that fuel; weather conditions conducive to the rapid spread of fire; and ignitions, either human or lightning. These act as a set of switches, in series: all must be “on” for major fires to occur.

Live fuel moisture content in late October 2019. The ‘dry’ and ‘transitional’ moisture categories correspond to conditions associated with over 95% of historical area burned by bushfire.
Estimated from MODIS satellite imagery for the Sydney basin Bioregion.

The NSW north coast and tablelands, along with much of the southern coastal regions of Queensland are famous for their diverse range of eucalypt forest, heathlands and rainforests, which flourish in the warm temperate to subtropical climate.




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These forests and shrublands can rapidly accumulate bushfire fuels such as leaf litter, twigs and grasses. The unprecedented drought across much of Australia has created exceptional dryness, including high-altitude areas and places like gullies, water courses, swamps and steep south-facing slopes that are normally too wet to burn.

These typically wet parts of the landscape have literally evaporated, allowing fire to spread unimpeded. The drought has been particularly acute in northern NSW where record low rainfall has led to widespread defoliation and tree death. It is no coincidence current fires correspond directly with hotspots of record low rainfall and above-average temperatures.

Annual trends in live fuel moisture. The horizontal line represents the threshold for the critical ‘dry’ fuel category, which corresponds to the historical occurrence of most major wildfires in the Bioregion.
Estimated from MODIS imagery for the Sydney basin Bioregion

Thus, the North Coast and northern ranges of NSW as well as much of southern and central Queensland have been primed for major fires. A continuous swathe of critically dry fuels across these diverse landscapes existed well before last week, as shown by damaging fires in September and October.

High temperatures and wind speeds, low humidity, and a wave of new ignitions on top of pre-existing fires has created an unprecedented situation of multiple large, intense fires stretching from the coast to the tablelands and parts of the interior.

More people in harm’s way

Many parts of the NSW north coast, southern Queensland and adjacent hinterlands have seen population growth around major towns and cities, as people look for pleasant coastal and rural homes away from the capital cities.

The extraordinary number and ferocity of these fires, plus the increased exposure of people and property, have contributed to the tragic results of the past few days.




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Communities flanked by forests along the coast and ranges are highly vulnerable because of the way fires spread under the influence of strong westerly winds. Coastal communities wedged between highly flammable forests and heathlands and the sea, are particularly at risk.

As a full picture of the extent and location of losses and damage becomes available, we will see the extent to which planning, building regulations, and fire preparation has mitigated losses and damage.

These unprecedented fires are an indication that a much-feared future under climate change may have arrived earlier than predicted. The week ahead will present high-stakes new challenges.

The most heavily populated region of the nation is now at critically dry levels of fuel moisture, below those at the time of the disastrous Christmas fires of 2001 and 2013. Climate change has been predicted to strongly increase the chance of large fires across this region. The conditions for Tuesday are a real and more extreme manifestation of these longstanding predictions.




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Whatever the successes and failures in this crisis, it is likely that we will have to rethink the way we plan and prepare for wildfires in a hotter, drier and more flammable world.The Conversation

Ross Bradstock, Professor, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong and Rachael Helene Nolan, Postdoctoral research fellow, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s drought relief package hits the political spot but misses the bigger point


Lin Crase, University of South Australia

There are two basic components to the Morrison government’s latest A$1 billion package response to the drought affecting large parts eastern Australia. One part involves extra subsidies to farmers and farm-related business. The other involves measures to create or upgrade infrastructure in rural areas.

Unfortunately, most funds will be misdirected and the response is unlikely to secure the long-term prosperity of regional and rural communities. This is a quick fix to a political problem, appealing to an important constituency. But it misses the point, again, about the emerging economics of drought.

Hitting the political target

The bulk of the A$1 billion package is allocated to a loan fund. The terms of the ten-year loans are more generous than what has been offered in the past. They are now interest-free for two years, with no requirement to start paying back the principal till the sixth year.

Farmers will be able to borrow up to A$2 million. In addition, loans of up to A$500,000 will also be available to small businesses in drought-affected towns.




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Because recipients are not having to pay the full cost, these loans are in practice a form of subsidy.

Subsidies are used by government to make more people undertake an activity than would otherwise be the case. In this case the government is offering a subsidy to keep farmers and small businesses owners doing what they’ve been doing, even though from an economic point of view this might not be very wise at all.

The question that should be asked is: “do we want more or fewer people to be involved in a farming activity that is vulnerable to drought?”

Most farming in Australia is completely reliant on rainfed crops and pastures. Rainfall is already highly variable. All the indicators from climate science is that rain will be even more unreliable in the future.




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In addition, the agricultural industries currently drought affected are not just at the whims of rainfall. These industries are constantly changing and being affected by new technologies and market forces.

For most agricultural produce the key market force is price. Sure, some farms and farmers can carve out niche markets, but most farm businesses depend on producing at lowest cost. Increasingly, the farms that survive in a highly competitive global environment do this by exploiting economies of scale. Big farms are thus more profitable than small ones in the good times (such as when it rains); and during the tough times (such as during drought) they have more resources and deeper reserves to ride it out.

Ultimately, this means successful farms are continually getting bigger and small farmers are getting squeezed out.




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The data also support the view that the farmers who survive and are simultaneously exposed to drought ultimately become even more profitable, because of what they learnt about managing in a difficult environment.

This is not to argue drought is a good thing for any farm, but it does raise a serious question about any government policy that effectively encourages more people to keep doing something when global and technological forces would point to it being unsustainable.

So what’s the point?

The second component of the Morrison government’s relief response involves directing about A$500 million from existing regional infrastructure funds into building roads and other things into affected communities.

While many will welcome this on top of the the extension of loans to small business in country towns, the policy detracts from the serious questions that confront rural and regional communities.

The economics of agriculture has flow-on effects to towns, but it would be wrong to think all are impacted in the same way.




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As a general rule, when farmers sell up, they tend to leave from the small communities first. The upshot is that small communities get smaller, older and poorer as those least mobile are left behind. These people also generally require more, not less, public support. Mid-size communities tend to level out, while continuing to age. Large regional centres tend to grow and prosper.

The point is that each community requires different things from government. Genuine public goods like roads, health services and education are desperately needed and undersupplied in many cases. Providing cash to a few select businesses and grading a gravel road in this situation belies the complexity of the long-term challenges and fails to address serious issues.

An elderly retiree in a rural town might well ask why their local road or bridge is only upgraded during a drought. Surely, government should focus on providing legitimate public goods for the long term, regardless of the weather.The Conversation

Lin Crase, Professor of Economics and Head of School, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Government sets up concessional loan scheme for drought-hit small businesses



The business drought loans will be up to $500,000, and include a two-year interest free period.
AAP/Dan Peled

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government will provide concessional “drought loans” for small businesses dependent on agriculture, as well as improving the terms of loans under the existing scheme for farmers, in a package approved by cabinet on Wednesday.

Measures to be unveiled on Thursday also include hundred of millions of dollars of direct investment into communities.

The initiatives come after intense pressure on the Coalition to do more for those hit by one of the country’s worst-ever droughts, with Scott Morrison very sensitive to how the issue is playing not just in the regions but among metropolitan voters.

Costings were still being finalised late Wednesday but sources said the package was worth more than $500 million.

The business drought loans will be up to $500,000. They will include a two year interest free period and interest only payments for years three to five, with interest and principal repayments in years six to ten.

Those set to benefit would include harvesting and shearing contractors, carriers, stock and station agents, and businesses dealing in agricultural equipment and repairs.

Businesses not directly linked to the farming sector – such as the local hairdresser or newsagent – would not be eligible.

The loans will be made through the Regional Investment Corporation – a Commonwealth body – with a small business defined as one with 19 or fewer employees.

The loans will be available immediately and no legislation is needed.

The improved terms for farmers loans will be see up to two years interest free, interest only payments for years three to five, and interest and principal payments for years six to ten. The current arrangements are interest only for the first five years and principal and interest for the rest of the 10 year loan.

The former co-ordinator-general for drought, Stephen Day, told the government that concerns had been constantly raised with him about the survival of small businesses in areas in drought.

Morrison said these businesses had been forced to seek overdrafts or other finance.

“Rural communities can’t function without these small businesses – that’s why we’re stepping in to provide this extra support,” he said.

The government says its planned extra direct investment will flow into projects that boost local businesses and jobs.

Six more local government areas will be added to the Drought Communities Program, at a cost of $6 million, and another $122 million will be available for the 122 local councils which have already received support of $1 million each.

The program funds infrastructure and local activities. An extra $50 million discretionary fund will support additional councils when needed. But this will be after a review of the program early in the new year.

Some $200 million will be redirected from the Building Better Regions Fund to set up a Special Drought Round, providing up to $10 million per project in local government areas.

Supplementary payments will be made under the Roads to Recovery program for 128 local government areas in drought for upgrades and maintenance. This is a re-purposing of $138.9 million.

Drought minister David Littleproud said the federal package was not linked to any requirement for state funding, which would have carried the risk of the states not matching the money. But he called on state governments to provide some relief on rates and payroll tax.

“We’re going to cut the cheque and we’re going to get the money out, because that’s what these local economies need now. They need stimulation …. We’re not going to play politics, we’re going to get on with the job and deliver, and hopefully the states will complement us with things like rate relief and also payroll tax”.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said: “This suite of measures go to the heart of what matters to these communities. From small businesses to primary producers, we are working with communities to take the pressure off one of the worst droughts in history.

“Not only is the government continuing to respond as the drought progresses, but we are working on measures to assist in the recovery when the rains come, which includes the government’s billion dollar investment in water infrastructure.”

Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie said: “I know our farmers and our communities are doing it really tough right now but despite the current drought Australian agriculture has a bright future”.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A national drought policy should be an easy, bipartisan fix. So why has it taken so long to enact a new one?



The Coalition has been promoting its $7 billion drought relief package, but critics say what’s needed is a more effective national drought policy.
Dan Peled/AAP

Linda Botterill, University of Canberra

In a country as dry as Australia, surely it is a no-brainer that we have in place a coordinated, national drought response that can be rolled out the same way that the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements are triggered when the country experiences cyclones, floods or bushfires.

Drought used to be part of these arrangements but, for good policy reasons, was removed in 1989.

Our last attempt at national drought policy

Once upon a time, Australia had a national drought policy. It was enacted in 1992 following a comprehensive review and report by an independent panel, the National Drought Policy Review Task Force, and detailed negotiations between Commonwealth and state ministers and their officials.

The policy included commitments by both state and Commonwealth governments to implement a coordinated and comprehensive package of programs covering drought preparation and response.

At the Commonwealth level, these measures were centred around:

  • the controversial “exceptional circumstances” provisions of its revised Rural Adjustment Scheme, which were aimed at supporting farm businesses by subsidising up to 100% of the interest paid on commercial loans.

  • a farm household support scheme that provided short-term income support to farmers and also offered grants for those who decided to leave the land.

  • farm management bonds, later known as farm management deposits, that allowed farmers to set aside pre-tax income they could later draw on in times of need.

  • a drought relief payment (added to the policy in 1994) that provided income support for farmers in areas declared to be experiencing “exceptional circumstances” drought. By May 1995, over 10,000 families were accessing this payment every month.

Grain feed left for sheep grazing on a failed crop in NSW.
NSW drought stock/AAP

Flaws in the policy

As anyone familiar with these programs will know, the exceptional circumstances program was plagued by problems.

The first was the lack of clarity around defining when a drought moved from a “normal” situation that was expected to be managed by farmers, to an “exceptional” situation with which even the best manager could not be expected to cope.

The definition of an “exceptional circumstances” drought became the subject of ongoing debate, along with concerns that drought assistance was based on administrative boundaries, leading to inequities that became known as the “lines on maps” problem.




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The second issue was the amount of information farmers were required to provide in order to demonstrate eligibility for “exceptional circumstances” assistance. The process was considered onerous and time-consuming.

Amid these concerns, a comprehensive review of drought policy was conducted in 2008 by the Productivity Commission. This was accompanied by a report by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO on the likely impact of climate change on the frequency and severity of droughts in Australia, and an independent report on the social impact of drought.

Following the review, the government decided to end the “exceptional circumstances” program in 2009. This effectively gutted the national drought policy.

Since then, there has been no further attempt at developing a comprehensive, predictable drought policy response from the federal or state governments. There have been intergovernmental National Drought Agreements, but these have done little more than restate the principles underpinning the country’s drought policy since 1992.

In recent years, the Coalition government has appointed a drought envoy, Barnaby Joyce, and drought coordinator-general, Stephen Day, to study the impact of drought on farmers and recommend possible solutions, but we have yet to see what either has come up with.

Drought envoy Barnaby Joyce says he has sent drought reports directly to Scott Morrison, but these have not yet been made public.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Providing meaningful, timely and predictable support

Much of the criticism levelled at the government’s response to the current drought relates to its ad hoc and knee-jerk nature. This reactive way of dealing with drought highlights the need to return to a more predictable approach. This would avoid perceptions of pork barrelling and provide certainty to farmers about what support is available and under what circumstances.

A new national drought policy needs to take several forms. First, it needs to support farmers to prepare for drought before it happens. This is one area where the current policy has been moderately successful.

As of August 2019, Australian farmers had set aside a total of $5.809 billion in farm management deposits. These deposits have encouraged farmers to manage financial risk by building up cash reserves in high-income years, which they could then use during times of drought.

Individual farmers can currently hold a total of $800,000 in deposits. One possible improvement is to raise the ceiling on annual deposits in the years following drought recovery to allow a rapid rebuilding of cash reserves.

Second, a strong drought policy needs to provide support to all farmers during drought, not just those who have accumulated sufficient deposits to help them ride out the lean years.

In recent years, many farmers have taken advantage of long-term, low-interest loans to help during drought, and some have called for zero-interest loans to be made available, as well. But loans are not an ideal solution, as repayments are generally required even when farm incomes remain low.

An alternative to low- or no-interest loans are income contingent loans. Similar to the HECS-HELP scheme in higher education, these types of loans only require repayment when the borrower can afford to do so.

This would not only give farmers greater flexibility when it comes to repayment, it would also greatly reduce the extensive red tape that strangled the old “exceptional circumstances” scheme.




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Third, we need a serious rethink of the way we provide income assistance to farmers in a broader sense. Providing income support to farmers who are asset-rich, for instance, raises questions about fairness when compared with poor people in cities who are struggling to get by on Newstart payments.

This imbalance has come into stark focus in recent weeks, particularly on social media, as government ministers have discussed the introduction of drug testing for Newstart recipients, and in the debate around the Indue card.

There has been no serious attempt in the past 45 years to measure the extent of poverty among farmers. We can develop more appropriate and equitable income-support policies if we can better understand the genuine nature of their need.

The elephant in the room

While the government has assiduously avoided making the link, an effective national drought policy also cannot be divorced from discussions about climate change.

The 2008 Productivity Commission report was pretty clear in its conclusions about the impact of climate change on drought in Australia. A growing number of farmers are now acknowledging this reality. Denying the need for serious consideration of climate change is not doing our agricultural producers any favours.




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Developing an effective national drought policy is hard work. But in another sense, it should also be easy. This is because, unlike many other areas of government policy, it can be bipartisan.

Although the National Party has historically been aligned with rural voters, all parties are broadly sympathetic to farmers and value their contributions to the economy and, importantly, our national identity. The public also generally regards farmers positively and is responsive to their plight when they are faced with hardship.

As such, this should be one area where our politicians can come together to develop a coherent national response — one that is known in advance, forward-looking, equitable with other income-assistance programs in the community, and provides meaningful support before, during and after drought.The Conversation

Linda Botterill, Professor in Australian Politics, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Just because both sides support drought relief, doesn’t mean it’s right


Lin Crase, University of South Australia

The bipartisan parliamentary vote to transform the A$3.9 billion Building Australia Fund into a pot of cash to drought-proof Australia, the Future Drought Fund, should not be taken as universal endorsement.

Labor opposed the idea before caving in, saying it did not “want to be painted as a party that opposes support for farmers”.

Rather, it simply shows that Australian politicians coalesce on some things: few miss the opportunity to be photographed with an affectionate child, and even fewer are willing to be critical of public funds being handed to drought-stricken farmers.

But support something (or feeling too scared not to oppose something), doesn’t necessarily make it the right policy.




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Australian governments have sought to drought-proof parts of inland Australia through publicly funded irrigation schemes for much of the past century.

Whenever dryland farmers experienced drought, they were viewed as having experienced a natural disaster, even though the variability of dryland rains was well understood.

Then, from the 1960s, things changed.

First there was a growing realisation that public monies spent on irrigation were not the best means of dealing with a variable climate.

We’ve moved away from thinking about drought as disaster

Second, governments started to describe drought differently, culminating in a 1992 National Drought Policy that required farmers to be more self-reliant and absorb the impacts of drought as something to be expected.

The decades that followed continued this trend with all states and the Commonwealth agreeing on national principles in 2013. Concessional loans and a farm management deposit scheme with taxation advantages were available to help farmers, but would only be useful to those that were viable in the long term.

A Farm Household Allowance, set at the level of Newstart and available for up to four years in return for setting out a plan to improve the farmer’s financial circumstances, was also introduced in 2015 and refined in 2018.

Part of the thinking was that climate change is expected to make droughts more common and severe, although there are good reasons for encouraging adaptation to the existing climate in any case.




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Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


However, getting the balance right between “supporting” farm businesses and encouraging them to adapt and be self-reliant isn’t straightforward, especially when the climate and political cycles coincide.

It’s hard to imagine politicians being fiscally prudent when they know they have access to a drought slush fund and are heading into an election during a drying phase.

So, what’s wrong with the new drought fund?

First, there is mounting evidence that farm businesses can actually benefit from drought in the longer term. This seems to occur because businesses that go through a drought develop coping strategies that when invoked in good years produce much greater profits.

That is not to say that droughts are financially a good thing – but it does mean that shielding farm businesses from drought runs the risk that they will not adapt.

Second, an obsession with drought undoes much of the good work done in reclassifying it as something to be expected rather than a natural disaster. Nearly all of the natural disaster payments made in the decade leading up to 2012-13 – one of the driest on record – were spent on rebuilding after floods and storms rather than droughts.

Third, while repurposing the Building Australia Fund as the Future Drought Fund is designed to appeal to rural and regional voters, it is unlikely to help them. Agriculture simply does not generate the jobs that it once did and public pronouncements about drought-proofing will not change the underlying economics of farm businesses and regional communities.




Read more:
Droughts, extreme weather and empowered consumers mean tough choices for farmers


Farming is generally helped by scale, and that means bigger farms with bigger machines displacing smaller farms. The upshot is fewer jobs and the shutdown of small towns, allowing only the larger regional centres to survive. Finding ways to manage this social phenomenon should be the priority rather than shielding farms from drought.

But it’s hard to be optimistic. Politicians love handing cheques to farmers as much as they love photographs with adoring children.The Conversation

Lin Crase, Professor of Economics and Head of School, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.