We must look past short-term drought solutions and improve the land itself


David Lindenmayer, Australian National University and Michelle Young, Australian National University

With drought ravaging Australia’s eastern states, much attention has been given to the need to provide short-term solutions through drought relief. But long-term resilience is a vital issue, particularly as climate change adds further pressure to farmers and farmland.

Our research has found that helping farmers improve the rivers, dams, native vegetation and trees on their land increases productivity, the resilience of the land to drought, and through this the health and well-being of farmers.




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


Now is the time to invest more heavily than ever in vital networks in regional Australia, such as Landcare and natural resource management groups like Local Land Services and Catchment Management Authorities.

Research shows that trees, dams and native vegetation are essential to increase agricultural productivity.
Shutterstock/Olga Kashubin

Growing pressures on agricultural land

Some researchers suggest that up to 370 million hectares of land in Australia and the Pacific is degraded. This diminished productivity across such a large area has significant implications for the long-term sustainability of agricultural production.

Australia also has one of the worst records for wildlife diversity loss, including extensive loss of biodiversity across much of our agricultural land. The problems of degradation and biodiversity loss are often magnified under the pressure of drought.




Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


The good news is that there are ways to strengthen the resilience of the farmland. One key approach is to invest in improving the condition of key natural assets on farms, like shelter belts, patches of remnant vegetation, farm dams, and watercourses.

When done well, active land management can help slow down or even reverse land degradation, improve biodiversity, and increase profitability.

Better lands make more money

Many studies have shown improving the natural assets on an farm can boost production, as well as avoid the costs of erosion and flood control. For example, restored riverbank vegetation can improve dry matter production in nearby paddocks, leading to greater milk production in diary herds and up to a 5% boost in farm income.

Lines of trees, called windbreaks or shelterbelts, can protect and improve the fields next to them.
Peter Fenda/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Similarly, shelter belts (tree lanes planted alongside paddocks) can lower wind speeds and wind chill, and boost pasture production for livestock by up to 8%, at the same time as providing habitat for biodiversity.




Read more:
Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years


Our own long-term work with farmers who invested in their natural assets prior to, or during, the Millennium Drought in New South Wales suggests these farmers are currently faring better in the current drought.

Investing in resilience for the long-haul

Groups like Landcare bring their expertise to land management.
Shutterstock/Darryl Smith

Well-supported and resourced organisations like Landcare groups are pivotal to supporting effective land management, which improves degraded land and helps farmland (and farmer) through tough times.

However, Landcare and other natural resource management agencies have been subject to major budget cuts over the past decade.

They are also a key part of the social fabric of rural communities, bringing together landowners to exchange ideas and support each other. Indeed, the Australian Landcare model is so well regarded globally it has been adopted in 22 other countries.




Read more:
Australia moves to El Niño alert and the drought is likely to continue


This drought is a critical decision point. The need to invest in maintaining and improving our vegetation, water and soil has never been more apparent than it is now. We have a chance to determine the long-term future of much of Australia’s agricultural land.The Conversation

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Michelle Young, Director, Sustainable Farms, Australian National University

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

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


Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

Two years ago we were celebrating just about the best year for farmers ever. Now many farmers – particularly in New South Wales and southern Queensland – are in the grip of drought.

It underlines just how variable the Australian climate can be.

While attention is focused on responding to the current situation, it is important to also think long-term. In our rush to help, we need to make sure well-meaning responses don’t do more harm than good.

The drought policy debate

The recent drought has stimulated much empathy for farmers from the media, governments and the public. Federal and state governments have committed hundreds of millions of dollars in farmer support. Private citizens and companies have also given generously to the cause.

While there appears to be overwhelming public support for helping farmers through drought, concerns have been raised by economists as well as farmer representatives – including both the former and current head of the National Farmers’ Federation.

A central concern is that drought support could undermine farmer preparedness for future droughts and longer-term adaptation to climate change.

Another concern is that simplistic “farmer as a victim” narrative presented by parts of the media overstate the number of farmers suffering hardship and understates the truth that most prepare for and manage drought without assistance.

Sensationalist media coverage can also damage Australia’s reputation as a reliable food producer. Images of barren landscapes, stressed livestock and desperate farmers send the wrong signals to customers and trading partners.

An acute policy dilemma

The tension in drought policy is real.

To remain internationally competitive Australian farmers need to increase their productivity.

Agricultural productivity depends on two main factors. First, innovation – adopting new technologies and management practices. Second, structural adjustment – shifting resources towards the most productive sectors and most efficient farmers.

Supporting drought-affected farms has the potential to slow both these processes, weakening productivity growth.

This gives rise to an acute dilemma: should we support farmers in distress, or support the industry to be the best it can be?




Read more:
To help drought-affected farmers, we need to support them in good times as well as bad


Factoring in climate change

While it is difficult to attribute any specific event to climate change, it is clear Australia’s climate is changing, with significant consequences for agriculture.

Australian average temperatures have increased by about 1℃ since 1950. Extreme heat events have become more frequent and intense. Recent decades show a trend towards lower average winter rainfall in the southwest and southeast.

Research by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences shows climate change has negatively affected the productivity of cropping farms, particularly in southern Australia.

This research also shows evidence of farmers adapting to maintain productivity and reduce their sensitivity to climate.


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Key southwestern and southeastern agricultural zones have been especially impacted by climate change.
ABARES

There is still much uncertainty over what climate change will mean for agriculture in the future.

However, the evidence we do have points to more frequent and more severe droughts, if only because of higher temperatures and evaporation rates.

Farming isn’t like other industries

Although businesses in other industries are expected to manage risk without assistance, agriculture has some special aspects that help build a case for a government policy response.

First, risk in agriculture is generally greater than in other industries. Farmers are vulnerable to variation in international commodity prices as well as droughts and other extreme events.


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Second, most farm businesses are also farm households.

While many other risky industries are made up of large corporate businesses (generally with diversified assets and ownership), agriculture is dominated by family farms.

Third, financial markets both in Australia and internationally struggle to provide viable risk management products for farmers – particularly drought insurance.

This means farming is an unusually risky business. Farmers must therefore be more conservative about financing and operating their businesses, which constrains investment, innovation and ultimately productivity.

Helping farms without making things worse

In 2008 a Productivity Commission review recommended a national farm income support scheme.

This led to the Farm Household Allowance program.

It provides a fortnightly payment, usually set at the rate of the Newstart unemployment allowance. There is also a financial assessment of the farm business and funding to help develop skills or get professional advice.

Those welfare programs provide an important safety net for farm households. Because they provide targeted support to households, rather than businesses, they result in fewer economic distortions than alternative approaches.

Past reviews have consistently recommended against subsidising farm business inputs or supporting output prices. This includes providing subsidies for livestock feed.

While these measures might provide short term relief, if they become routine they risk weakening the incentives to manage farms properly, by for instance destocking sheep and cattle ahead of likely droughts.




Read more:
Drought is inevitable, Mr Joyce


Looking to the future, it is possible insurance could have an important role to play.

While drought insurance has failed to thrive in Australia to date, advances in data could allow more viable forms of insurance to emerge.

In particular, index-based insurance products where payouts are based on weather data rather than an assessment of farm damages.

Such insurance, if done well, could provide farmers with better protection from climate risk, while also supporting adaptation and productivity growth – effectively sidestepping our current drought policy dilemma.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

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

Australia moves to El Niño alert and the drought is likely to continue


Skie Tobin, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Catherine Ganter, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Robyn Duell, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

The chances of an El Niño developing late in 2018 have increased and this week the Bureau moved to El Niño ALERT. This means that model outlooks and observations indicate there is approximately a 70% chance that El Niño will develop in the coming months. Current patterns in the Pacific are similar to the early stages of past El Niño, with warm water shifting east towards South America.

We’re also seeing indications a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) has likely started, in which warmer waters near Africa drag moisture away from Australia. El Niño and positive IOD events typically mean below-average spring rainfall in central and southern Australia, and a drier start to the wet season in Queensland and the Northern Territory.




Read more:
Dipole: the ‘Indian Niño’ that has brought devastating drought to East Africa


The development of either would favour continued dry weather, and increase the likelihood that widespread drought relief will be delayed until 2019. Higher than average temperatures, heatwaves, and more severe bushfire weather are also more likely during El Niño and positive IOD events.

A dry year so far

September 2018 was a very dry month, adding to low rainfall seen across many parts of Australia so far this year. September 2018 was not only the driest September in 119 years of record for Australia, but it was also the second-driest for any month of the year (behind only April 1902).

Rainfall for the year to date has been exceptionally low over the mainland southeast, with much of the region experiencing totals in the lowest 10% of records for January–September. Many locations in eastern New South Wales, eastern Victoria, and southeast Queensland have received about 400 mm less rainfall than they usually would have by this time of the year.

Rainfall deciles for January to September 2018.
Bureau of Meterology

Much of southern Australia has experienced a persistent rainfall decline spanning several decades, which is adding to drought stress by drying the landscape.

Southwest Western Australia has experienced significantly lower cool season (April to October) rainfall since the mid-1970s, compared to observations since 1900, while for the southeast the drop has been more recent, emerging in the mid-1990s. These rainfall declines have been linked to circulation changes in the southern hemisphere influenced by the increase in greenhouse gases.

These rainfall changes have also been accompanied by much larger reductions in streamflow, particularly in the southwest of Australia where high flows have become much less frequent.

April to October rainfall anomalies (mm) for southwestern (left) and southeastern (right) Australia, showing the decline in totals with respect to the 1961 to 1990 average. The main feature of the decline is significantly fewer wet years, meaning recovery from the dry years is patchy.
Bureau of Meteorology

And it’s also been unusually warm

Low rainfall has also been accompanied by very high daytime temperatures so far this year. Of course, Australian temperatures are warming in line with global trends, but in individual years variations which are likely to be largely natural (such as droughts) may add to or subtract from the broader trends.




Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


Historically, droughts have often brought hot conditions, and this has been borne out in 2018. Maximum temperatures for January to September were the warmest on record for the Murray–Darling Basin and New South Wales, with neighbouring regions also much warmer than average.

These extremely warm days, combined with extremely low rainfall, have caused an intense drying of the Australian landscape in 2018, resulting in an early start to the bushfire season in New South Wales and Victoria, where damaging fire were observed as early as late winter.

So how might the year end?

Like all Australians, the Bureau hopes farmers and those suffering through drought get the rainfall they need, but unfortunately, the outlook indicates dry conditions are likely to continue for some time.

Large parts of southern and eastern Australia are likely to see a drier than average end to the year, though odds favouring drier than average conditions tend to moderate as we head towards summer. Most of the country is likely to see a dry October, though local heavy falls can occur against a backdrop of broadly suppressed rainfall.

Chance of exceeding median rainfall between October to December 2018.
Bureau of Meteorology

While some parts of New South Wales and southeastern Queensland have received very welcome rainfall in the first days of October, rainfall has been below average over much of over eastern Australia for so long (since early 2017) that this rainfall event hasn’t been enough to break the drought.




Read more:
Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years


Looking at temperature, outlooks show a very high chance of warmer than average days and nights through to the end of 2018. Considering the year so far has already been very warm, this means 2018 has the potential to rank as another significant warm year. Seven of Australia’s ten warmest years have occurred since 2005, with just one cooler than average year in the last decade (2011), highlighting how warmer than average temperatures now dominate Australia’s climate.The Conversation

Change of exceeding median maximum temperature between October to December 2018.
Bureau of Meteorology

Skie Tobin, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Catherine Ganter, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Robyn Duell, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

Government to set up new multi-billion Future Drought Fund


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will announce a Future Drought Fund, that will grow to $5 billion over a decade, at Friday’s national drought summit.

The fund is to provide support against future droughts, helping primary producers, non-government organisations and communities prepare for and respond to their impact.

It will be given an initial $3.9 billion injection, and will expand to $5 billion by 2028. The funding will be managed by the Future Fund Board of Guardians.

From 2020, about $100 million annually will be available, with payments starting on July 1, 2020.

Morrison has made dealing with the impact of drought one of his priorities since becoming prime minister, with various immediate measures for the current dry.

The summit will be attended by all levels of government, and representatives of farming and agribusiness, banking and finance services, and community and charitable organisations, as well as experts.

The special envoy for drought, Barnaby Joyce, and the coordinator-general for drought, Major General Stephen Day, will speak, while the Bureau of Meteorology will brief on present conditions and the projected outlook.




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The planned fund will provide community services and research, and assist the adoption of technology to support long-term sustainability in periods of drought, through capital or ongoing initiatives. It could include investments in local projects, infrastructure, and research.

The criteria for the type of projects to be supported have yet to be determined and the government says these would continue to change, depending on the drought and community response needed.

Initiatives to be supported by the fund would be decided as part of the budget process.




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


Morrison said that in his visit to Quilpie in western Queensland, which he undertook immediately after becoming prime minister, he had been struck by “the strength, resilience and hope” displayed by the families.

“Our response to the drought has to be the same. Deal with the here and now, but also make sure we plan for the future.

“That’s what the Future Drought Fund is all about. Putting money aside for non-rainy days in the future,” he said.

“The fund will build over time, starting with an initial $3.9 billion up front. Part of the earning in the fund will be used to fund important water infrastructure and drought resilience projects, while the balance is ploughed back into the fund, so it grows to $5 billion over the next decade.

“This funding will support farmers and their local communities when it’s not raining.

“The challenges of drought vary from farm to farm, district to district, town to town and we continually need to adapt and build capacity – the Future Drought Fund gives us this opportunity,” Morrison said.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.

Spring is coming, and there’s little drought relief in sight


Jonathan Pollock, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Catherine Ganter, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and David Jones, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

So far, 2018 has been very warm and exceptionally dry over large parts of mainland Australia. The Bureau of Meteorology’s climate outlook for spring, released today, shows that significant widespread relief is unlikely.

The chance of a spring El Niño, along with other climate drivers, is likely to mean below-average rainfall for large parts of the country in the coming months.

A dry winter for most of Australia

Winter rainfall has been below average over most of Australia’s eastern mainland. Large parts of New South Wales are on track to have winter rainfall in the lowest 10% of records. This has compounded drought conditions in the east after mixed rainfall last year and a dry start to 2018 for much of the country.

But it’s not just the lack of rainfall that has made the impact of drought severe. Another factor was the warmer than average daytime temperatures.




Read more:
Winter is coming, and it’s looking mighty mild


Warmest January-August on record for some

The 2017-18 summer average temperature was Australia’s second-warmest in 108 years of records, while autumn was Australia’s fourth-warmest on record. Winter 2018 is likely to be among the five warmest winters on record in terms of maximum temperatures.

Many of the above-average daytime temperatures have been focused over the country’s southeast. In fact, South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria are all on track for their warmest maximum temperatures for the January to August period.

The below-average rainfall combined with above-average maximum temperatures resulted in a rapid and intense drying of the landscape. This has led to unusually severe fire weather conditions in July and August – conditions more typically seen at the end of spring than the end of winter.




Read more:
Drought, wind and heat: when fire seasons start earlier and last longer


In contrast, low rainfall, cloud-free skies and dry soils mean it has been colder than usual overnight across most of the country during winter.

Climate conditions favour low rainfall

Will spring see a break in the warmer days and below average rainfall? Probably not. Both the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), can be major influences on Australia’s seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns.

During winter, both ENSO and the IOD were neutral, meaning that neither of them provided a large influence on winter’s weather (so we can’t blame them this time).




Read more:
The BOM outlook for the weather over the next three months is ‘neutral’ – here’s what that really means


However, most international climate models have been forecasting a spring El Niño since June. Sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific have been gradually warming since autumn and are rising towards El Niño thresholds. At the beginning of June the Bureau went on El Niño watch, which indicates a roughly 50% chance of El Niño forming in 2018 – double the usual likelihood. El Niño during spring typically means below-average rainfall across eastern and northern Australia.

Three out of five international models are forecasting that a positive Indian Ocean Dipole event is also possible this spring. A positive IOD during spring typically means below-average rainfall in central and southern Australia. When El Niño and a positive IOD coincide, their drying influences can be exacerbated.

So, what’s the outlook for spring?

With a reasonable chance of both El Niño developing and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, the outlook for spring shows below-average rainfall is likely over much of the southeast and parts of the northeast and southwest. The rest of the country has a neutral outlook, showing no strong push towards a wetter or drier than average three months.

Inland areas are typically dry at this time of year, so the neutral outlook in the arid interior typically implies that low rainfall is likely. No part of the country favours above-average rainfall in the spring outlook.

Spring days are likely to be warmer than average across Australia, with the highest chances (greater than 80%) over northern and western Australia. Most of the country is likely to have warmer than average nights this spring, except for areas around the Great Australian Bight which have roughly equal chances of warmer or cooler than average minimum temperatures.

What does this mean for the drought and bushfires?

Like the rest of the country, the Bureau is hoping that farmers in drought-affected areas get the rainfall they need soon. But this outlook isn’t the news many want to hear.

Last weekend’s rainfall over northeastern New South Wales and southeastern Queensland was welcomed by most, but unfortunately it was well short of what was required for a recovery from the longer-term rainfall deficits. Many locations on the east coast are well below their average year-to-date rainfall totals.

Rainfall deficiencies for the first seven months of 2018 in areas of western NSW, northwest Victoria and eastern South Australia widely show rainfall totals in the lowest 5% of the 118 years of record. It would take many months of above-average rainfall to return to average levels.




Read more:
How to prepare your home for a bushfire – and when to leave


The above average temperatures in 2018 so far, combined with below average rainfall and dry vegetation, mean a higher likelihood of fire activity in parts of southern Australia. The warm and dry outlook for spring means the drought in parts of the country’s east is likely to continue.


Learn how climate outlooks are made.The Conversation

Jonathan Pollock, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Catherine Ganter, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and David Jones, Climate Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

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

Drought is inevitable, Mr Joyce



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Scott Morrison visiting a Queensland farm this week.
Alex Ellinghausen/AAP

John Freebairn, University of Melbourne

Barnaby Joyce, Australia’s new special envoy for drought assistance and recovery, will have to be careful he doesn’t do more harm than good.

Government funding of agriculture during a drought typically falls into three categories:

  • subsidies for farm businesses
  • income supplements for low-income farm families
  • support for better decision-making.

Unfortunately, none of these government outlays induces the much-needed rainfall. But, as this article will explain, income supplements and help with decision-making are better ways of supporting sustainable farming. Subsidies are much more problematic.




Read more:
Death of National Drought Policy takes us back to policy on the run


Drought as a fact of farming

Farming is a known risky business. Seasonal conditions vary from drought to normal and above-average rainfall. Some are hit by floods and cyclones. Farmers also face outbreaks of pests and diseases.

Farm commodity prices are volatile. Farmers, and others along the food and fibre supply chains, are fully aware of volatile and uncertain seasons and markets.

People commit to farming if anticipated returns in the good times balance low or negative returns during droughts and other adverse conditions. This is consistent with the productive allocation of limited national labour and capital between agriculture and other sectors of the economy.

Farmers employ production and financial strategies to adapt to changing seasonal and market conditions. This includes smoothing over time the availability of funds for family consumption. Most farmers prepare for and adjust to the ups and downs of farming, including droughts.




Read more:
To help drought-affected farmers, we need to support them in good times as well as bad


So why a new round of government handouts for another drought? Current drought relief amounts to $576 million, a figure that excludes concessional loans to farmers. Of course, drought conditions are tough, but they are not a surprise. They do, however, provide graphic material for the media, and some families fall into poverty.

Farm subsidies

One general form of government drought assistance involves subsidies. These help pay for interest on loans, freight and fodder. Some have even suggested subsidies through raising the prices of farm products.

Drought subsidies have the effect of raising the average return from farming. They might be said to “privatise the profits of good seasons and subsidise some of the losses of droughts”.

Subsidies must be paid for, though, by higher taxes or lower government outlays affecting others. Artificially increasing the average returns to farming leads to a misallocation of limited national labour, capital and other resources from the rest of the economy to agriculture. The effect is much the same as the efficiency costs of tariffs protecting the car assembly industry.

Farm drought subsidies have important and unintended side effects. Knowing that subsidies will be provided during drought and other adverse conditions reduces the incentives for some farmers to adopt appropriate drought preparation and mitigation strategies.

Structural adjustment is a continuing feature of farming, as it is for all other industries. Increased costs of labour relative to capital equipment, as well as the scale bias of much farming technological change, favour the expansion of farm sizes over time. Drought subsidies work to hold up inevitable structural changes, including smart farmers who have planned for and adapted to drought buying out less successful operators.

Subsidies for farm outputs or inputs are a very blunt policy instrument to support farm families facing poverty. Direct household income measures, as discussed next, are more effective.

Farm household income support

Australia has long-established equity objectives of a minimum income and safety net for all citizens. Newstart is the policy for the unemployed, Age Pension for retirees, Disability Support Pension for the disabled, and so forth.

Because of poor decisions or bad luck, some farm households find themselves short of money to provide basic food, clothing, education and so forth for the family. The Farm Household Allowance (FHA) is a means-tested (assets and income) government-funded safety net to counter poverty of farm households.

This allowance raises horizontal equity issues. Initially, the FHA rate was the same as for Newstart. In an August 5 policy announcement, the government added additional lump-sum payments, described as a supplement. Arguably, the supplement can be interpreted as a form of farm subsidy.

Providing a minimum income support to the self-employed, including farmers but also many small-business people in other parts of the economy, has been a challenge. A key challenge is the difficulties of applying a means test. Why other small-business families experiencing a downturn in business income – including some who depend on the farm sector – are not eligible for an equivalent to the Farm Household Allowance remains an issue.

Government funding of mental health, social and other support for farmers and their families adversely affected by drought can be regarded as an important social equity instrument. These programs may also be a valuable investment in society.




Read more:
Farmers experiencing drought-related stress need targeted support


Better farm business decision-making

A number of programs to support better farm plans to manage droughts are funded. This includes the provision of meteorological and other data on seasonal conditions to guide decisions.

Hands-on education and support to individual farmers in developing more appropriate decision strategies and plans are also available. This adds to a more robust and self-sufficient farming sector.

To summarise, government funding for farm household incomes to avoid poverty and to improve farm decision-making make sense. Subsidies for farm inputs or outputs have undesirable longer-term resource misallocation effects, and are relatively blunt income-support measures.




Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


The Conversation


John Freebairn, Professor, Department of Economics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Drought, wind and heat: when fire seasons start earlier and last longer


Owen Price, University of Wollongong

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service declared the earliest total fire bans in its history this week. The entire state was declared to be in drought on the same day.

The combination of winter drought and hot, dry weather has made dangerous fires increasingly likely.




Read more:
After the firestorm: the health implications of returning to a bushfire zone


Already this week two fires on the south coast have escaped containment lines and destroyed houses. The weather during these fires was 6℃ warmer than the August average, dry and extremely windy. The wind speed peaked at 104 kilometres an hour in Bega and 85km/h in Nowra, two towns close to where fires broke out.

Under these conditions, bushfires will spread quickly, produce large numbers of embers and are hard to stop.

Our fire seasons now start earlier and last longer. This means we’re increasingly likely to see repeats of historically large fires threatening residential areas.

Fire seasons are longer

Current dry conditions are reflected in the maps of live fuel moisture produced by Dr Rachael Nolan of Western Sydney University.


Nolan R.H., Boer M.M., de Dios V.R., Caccamo G., Bradstock R.A. (2016), Large-scale, dynamic transformations in fuel moisture drive wildfire activity across southeastern Australia. Geophysical Research Letters 43, 4229-4238.

This method tracks the weekly moisture content of the forests in southern Australia, as observed by NASA’s MODIS satellite. The latest map shows a patchy distribution of dry areas and a drying trend over recent weeks.

It looks like NSW’s fire season has already started, and it’s likely to be bad. Last year’s fire season also extended well into autumn, with serious bushfires burning in mid-April.

Fire agencies usually enjoy a six-month break from bushfires between April and September, but this year they had only three months’ respite.

This reflects evidence of a trend toward more extreme fire weather over the past 30 years, and lengthening fire seasons.

This problem is being keenly felt in western United States, where fire agencies have warned that the fire season now lasts all year round. Not only that, there is clear evidence climate change is increasing fire activity in the United States; the record for the largest fire in California history has been broken two years in a row.

Alarming precedents

The most damaging fire season for NSW in the past 30 years was in October 2013 when the Linksview fire destroyed 200 houses in the Blue Mountains.

The build-up to that season was eerily similar to this year, with a winter drought and bushfires in September, but the moisture maps show that the forests are drier now than at the same time in 2013, and we have already seen serious bushfires in August.




Read more:
Future bushfires will be worse: we need to adapt now


As we move into September and October, the weather will warm, which means any remaining moisture in the ground and plants will evaporate even faster than at present, and fires will be more intense and spread faster. The only thing that will reduce the risk is soaking rain of at least 100mm.

Whether or not that will occur in the next two months is almost impossible to predict. At the moment it seems unlikely. The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest seasonal forecast, issued on August 16, considers it likely that dry conditions will persist for the next three months.

The heightened risk of bushfire this season should be a wake-up call for residents in bushfire-prone areas. Most people in really risky areas such as the Blue Mountains are well prepared, but many people who are a little more removed from the forests are not aware of the risk.




Read more:
Where to take refuge in your home during a bushfire


For example, many residents of Wollongong probably don’t know this October is the 50th anniversary of the great 1968 fires that swept down the Illawarra Escarpment into the suburbs of Figtree, Bulli, Austinmer and others.

The footprint of the 1968 Illawarra fires, which burned through residential areas.

If the same footprint of fire were to occur again, some 5,000 houses would be affected. The present indicators suggest a repeat of this event is more likely than at any time for decades.

Residents need to prepare a bushfire survival plan, which includes a decision on whether to stay and defend or to leave as soon as they learn about a nearby bushfire.




Read more:
Our deadly bushfire gamble: risk your life or bet your house


Current research at University of Wollongong suggests that the biggest influence on the risk of house loss during a bushfire is the actions that the residents themselves take. This includes ensuring that natural and man-made fuels are kept to a minimum in the garden, especially close to the house, and also defending the house from spot-fires caused by embers.

The Rural Fire Service has a wealth of advice for preparing for bushfires on its website.

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The Conversation

We’re look at a torrid upcoming fire season, dependent on the vagaries of the Australian climate. Either way, now is the time for people to brace themselves and get prepared.

Owen Price, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

To help drought-affected farmers, we need to support them in good times as well as bad



File 20180808 191041 xb0wtk.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Farmers need help to plan for droughts, not just to respond to them when things get desperate.
Stephenallen75/Shutterstock.com

Jacki Schirmer, University of Canberra; Dominic Peel, University of Canberra; Ivan Charles Hanigan, University of Sydney, and Kimberly Brown, University of Canberra

With the New South Wales government announcing that drought is now affecting the entire state, the federal government’s crisis assistance payments have been described by some as too little, too late. The National Farmers Federation has renewed its calls for a national drought policy and drought experts have expressed concern about reliance on emergency handouts.

With droughts predicted to grow in frequency and severity in the future, we need to support farmers and their communities to adapt to these changes.

To best support the well-being of farmers and farming communities, we need to support them not just when they are in the middle of a drought, but also when the rain comes and the dust has settled. An emergency response is important, but on its own is not enough – our farming communities deserve more. It needs to be accompanied by long-term coordinated support, delivered through the whole drought cycle, that helps farmers prepare for drought, cope with drought when it is happening, and recover rapidly afterwards.

Prolonged droughts harm the health and well-being of people in farming communities, although research also shows that not everyone is affected to the same extent, and some not at all. This means we need to learn from past experience in choosing what actions represent the best and most effective investments.




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Farmers experiencing drought-related stress need targeted support


Providing farmers with emergency assistance when drought is at its worst helps to alleviate the most acute hardship. But multiple inquiries and research studies (see here, here and here) have concluded that this approach is not enough.

To truly support the well-being of farming communities facing the threat of drought, we need to invest more in actions that support their preparedness and resilience before drought hits, rather than waiting until conditions are at their worst before offering help.

The hydro-illogical cycle

Doing this requires breaking the “hydro-illogical cycle”, in which a severe drought triggers short-term concern and assistance, followed by a return to apathy and complacency once the rains return. When drought drops off the public and media radar, communities are often left with little or no support to invest in preparing for the next inevitable drought.

The hydro-illogical cycle.
US National Drought Mitigation Center, Author provided

Farmers need proactive, long-term access to drought preparedness schemes well in advance, before the effects of drought begin to bite. Farmers who use programs such as the farm management deposits scheme, which allows them to put aside surplus income in good years and draw on it in difficult ones, have higher well-being during droughts than those who access emergency assistance provided during drought.

Our research has also identified some other ways to protect farmers’ well-being during challenging times. These include investing in forward planning for drought, supporting farmers to invest in “drought-proofing” measures suitable to their farm, and creating networks through which farmers can share their knowledge about what works to cope best with the financial, psychological and social challenges they face.

These things are not a “fix” for drought; a drought will always have significant impacts. But they can help reduce the severity of impacts, and the time taken to recover. However, to really be effective, these actions need to be invested in between droughts, in addition to investing in emergency support during drought.

We can learn a lot from the actions that farmers are already taking. Thousands of farmers have spent years investing in drought resilience, for example by changing pasture types and water management practices, and by changing how they plan for and manage periods of low rainfall.

This investment often goes unsupported and unrecognised, and has to be done among the ever-present pressures of challenging market conditions, low profit margins, rising costs, the need to repay debts incurred in the last drought or flood, and the myriad daily pressures of farming. We need to better reward farmers who make these investments, and to offer incentives for continued investment in this type of action between droughts.

Regenerative farming

One investment being made by many farmers across Australia is the adoption of regenerative farming, in which the entire farming system is re-oriented with a goal of better using natural ecosystem processes to support production, and of better matching production to land capacity through different climatic conditions.

Early research findings suggest that engaging in regenerative farming can improve drought resilience. But shifting to use of this approach to farming takes a lot of time and investment; before asking farmers to make fundamental changes to the way they farm, we need more research that critically examines when, where and how different farming systems can help safeguard against drought.




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As well as helping farmers invest in actions to increase resilience to drought, we also need to consider the best ways to support those who are suffering severe psychological and financial stress. For many farmers, supporting them to cope with drought and stay in farming is the best decision. But for others, the best decision can be to leave farming altogether.

The decision to leave farming is understandably one of the most challenging times in a farmer’s life, and often happens when their well-being is low and they are experiencing psychological distress. This means that the quality of help they receive during this time can make a big difference in how well they cope. Services such as the Rural Financial Counselling Service have a vital role to play at all times (before, during and after drought) in giving advice to farmers weighing up the agonising decision to stay or leave.

If you want to help farmers, keep supporting relief funds – they provide essential help during the worst of drought. But also tell your local politician that you support investment in long-term programs that help farmers improve their resilience to the next drought, and the one after that, and that recognise and reward the investments farmers are already making in doing this.

The ConversationIf we truly have our farmers’ well-being at heart, we should be taking drought action in wet years as well as dry, and in good times as well as bad.

Jacki Schirmer, Associate Professor, University of Canberra; Dominic Peel, PhD Candidate in Public Health, University of Canberra; Ivan Charles Hanigan, Data Scientist (Epidemiology), University of Sydney, and Kimberly Brown, PhD Researcher, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.