Great southern drought: Australian farmers crippled, climate action stalled

Amidst the worst drought in living memory, the world's driest continent is also heating up due to climate change. Critics say too little is being done to prevent increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall.

New South Wales, which is Australia's most populous state and about the size of France, was declared 100 percent in drought on Wednesday.

Despite the fact that it is winter, farmers in the state and throughout the southern region of Australia are struggling to maintain their livelihood as crops fail and livestock die.

With grazing land turned to dust, some farmers have resorted to hand-feeding to keep their stock alive. They also have permission to shoot kangaroos that compete for pasture. Depression and suicide among farmers are on the rise.

And yet, there is no end in sight to this crippling drought, unseen for generations. The predicted start of bushfire season has been brought forward two months in New South Wales to prepare for what could be an apocalyptic summer scenario.

Though Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth and has regularly experienced intense droughts since modern record-taking began after European colonization, the relatively fertile southern regions continue getting hotter while receiving less rain.

Autumn of 2017 in southern Australia was the driest for 116 years. And 2017 was also the hottest year ever in New South Wales.

Australien Naturkatastrophen Dürre Kuh

A drought crippled New South Wales in 2006 as well

Increasing drought

"These regions experienced increasing intensity and frequency of hot days and heat waves over the past 50 years, in turn increasing drought severity," said Lesley Hughes, a professor of biology at Sydney's Macquarie University and councillor with the Climate Council — a climate change information nonprofit created after the current government closed down the state-funded Climate Commission.

But the "source of the problem is complex," she told DW.

Scientists are confident that warming linked to human-induced climate change "has contributed to a southward shift in weather fronts from the Southern Ocean, which typically bring rain to southern Australia during winter and spring," Hughes explained of the reduced precipitation.

As rain-inducing weather fronts drift away from land to the Southern Ocean, the risk of drought has increased, especially in agricultural heartlands such as the Murray Darling Basin in New South Wales.

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Benjamin Henley, a research fellow in climate and water resources at the University of Melbourne, shares this view. 

"Climate model projections suggest that with anthropogenic emissions, the storm track will shift south, reducing rainfall [over land] in the south," he told DW.

But global warming could also be increasing the intensity of drought. "Higher temperatures during droughts, which influence evaporation rates, can be due to both the lack of rain itself [due to the reduced evaporative cooling], and the higher probability of warmer temperatures due to climate change," Henley explained.

Read moreDomino effect could heat up Earth by 5 degrees Celsius — despite Paris climate deal

Farmers have had to hand-feed hungry cattle as pasture lands turn to dust in New South Wales

Working with colleagues at the University of Melbourne, Henley has been tracking cool and warm season rainfall patterns over 800 years in an effort to better understand whether this drought, and the so-called Millennium Drought of the 2000s that was the longest in history, are in any way unusual.

In an article published this past May in The Conversation, Henley and his co-authors concluded that "major droughts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in southern Australia are likely without precedent over the past 400 years."

Paradoxically, while southern Australia has been overly dry, the tropical north has been "unusually wet" over recent decades.

While Henley says that "natural climate variability is likely playing a large role" in these patterns, he acknowledges the southern Australia droughts "will likely worsen with climate change ... given the drying rainfall projections." 

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

Australia: 'Land of drought'

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, addressing the drought in the state of New South Wales, which produces one-quarter of the country's agricultural output, said, "Now we are the land of drought." Australia recently passed legislation to provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of relief aid to farmers, including funds for mental health support.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

Ethiopia: The end of nomadic life?

Ethiopia has been suffering from ongoing drought conditions since 2015, causing massive food shortages. The Ethiopian government said that some 8.5 million citizens required emergency food assistance in 2017 and that nearly 400,000 infants suffered acute malnutrition. Furthermore, the drought threatens to end traditional nomadic herding in the region.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

South Africa: The looming prospect of Day Zero

Conservation and late-season rains saved South Africa's Cape Town from an apocalyptic Day Zero scenario, in which water would have to be turned off and emergency rations issued, The drought, which was one of the worst in decades, emptied water reservoirs and caused some experts to suggest hauling icebergs from Antarctica avert a crisis.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

Europe: Withering crops

Europe's sweltering heat has been compounded by a lack of rain. Not only have citizens been suffering the health consequences, which affect health care systems and labor productivity, crops have also been hit hard. Farmers across the continent fear bankruptcy due to poor crops and the EU Joint Research Center predicts "an increase in drought frequency and intensity in the future."

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

Greece: Lost villages reappear as crops die

Greece has been facing the dual problem of flash flooding in some regions and drought in others. Crete's farmers said they could lose up to 40 percent of their crop this year due to an extremely dry winter. Though they are watering, they say it is not enough to nourish their crops. Water levels are so low that previously submerged villages have begun to reappear in reservoirs across the country.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

Sweden: Worst drought since 1944

Sweden, which has not seen rain for over three months, is experiencing its worst drought since 1944. The situation threatens to cause severe crop losses costing farmers hundreds of thousands of euros. Sweden has been the site of massive forest fires and has even seen temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Arctic Circle.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

UK: 'Tinderbox conditions'

The United Kingdom fears serious threats to its food supply chain due to the effects of this summer's drought. The country's National Farmers Union said the country is experiencing "tinderbox conditions." This adds to problems brought on by the prospect of needed self-reliance in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

India: Running out of water

India has been plagued by water shortages due to rising population and mismanagement but also aggravated by drought, causing many areas of the country to run out of water. Bangalore was recently added to the list of global cities most likely to run out of drinking water. Other cities on the list include Cape Town, South Africa; Jakarta, Indonesia and Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Global desert: Drought turning the planet into a tinderbox

USA: Back to the Dust Bowl

The US government said 29 percent of the country is currently experiencing drought, with conditions affecting some 75 million people. Although wildfires in California have captured the world's attention, farming states, like Kansas, have once again been suffering. Kansas was one of the states crippled by the famous 1930s Dust Bowl.

Stalling climate action in midst of big dry

While the Australian government has announced a comprehensive relief package for farmers, there's concern that an essential part of the problem is not being addressed: climate change.  

Members of the conservative government, including former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, have declared that climate change mitigation will do nothing to help farmers.

Read moreCan Australia's wicked heat wave convince climate change deniers?

But Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is at least willing to concede that the climate is changing.

"I think everyone agrees that we're seeing rainfall that is, if you like, more erratic — droughts that are more frequent and seasons that are hotter," Turnbull told state broadcaster ABC.

Turnbull, who has owned a livestock farm in New South Wales since 1982, reiterated the collective sense that this was the worst drought in living memory.

But the government has stopped short of attributing the changing climate to human-induced global warming, and enacting policy accordingly.

Turnbull's predecessor scrapped a carbon tax scheme introduced by the center-left Labor government, and the new leader has since failed to introduce an alternative emissions trading scheme. Australia has also back-pedaled its commitment to cutting carbon emissions.

Environmentalists warn that drought and bushfires could help push the iconic koala toward extinction within a decade

Hughes says current emission reduction targets are "not even close" to combating rising temperatures. Under the Paris agreement, Australia has committed to reducing CO2 emissions 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

"This has been widely judged as inadequate," Hughes said, noting that cuts of 45 to 60 percent had been recommended before the Paris deal.

Most concerningly, Australian emissions have actually been increasing every quarter since March 2015. There are real doubts that even the current, lowered target will be met.

Read more: Australia sets modest 2030 emissions target

According to Hughes, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Bureau of Meteorology have projected that winter and spring rainfall could decrease by up to around 15 percent across southern Australia by 2030.

Meanwhile, rainfall could decline by 20 to 30 percent later in the century, depending on levels of greenhouse pollution. The southwest could see rainfall declines of 50 percent, which would be a nightmare scenario for the farmers who contribute a large part of Australian exports.

"The combined effect of increasing temperatures and declining rainfall mean that without deep and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, there is high confidence that the time spent in drought will increase in coming decades in southern Australia," Hughes concluded.

Black Saturday

Record temperatures, record fires

The Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria were the deadliest in Australia's history. They came on the heels of a record heat wave — with scorching temperatures reaching the mid-40s Celcius for several days before the blazes started. In the dry heat, all it took was a spark to ignite an apocalyptic firestorm.

Black Saturday

Many fires to fight

As many as 400 individual fires broke out on February 7, 2009. When it was all over, they had killed 75 people and razed 2500 homes. Whole towns had been annihilated. In many cases, people who had lost everything did not return to rebuild.

Black Saturday

Post-traumatic stress

David Barton's home in Marysville, Victoria, burned down during the Black Saturday bushfires. He and his then-wife survived but the traumatic experience still haunts him and contributed to the eventual failure of his marriage. He wasn't alone. Many other couples who lived through the events split up. Eventually, he returned to Marysville alone.

Black Saturday

Walls of fire

Fanned by strong winds, the firefronts of bushfires can grow to more than 100 meters high. In such extreme situations, flight is the only option. Those who tried to defend their homes using their garden hoses during the Black Saturday fires were later found dead in their yards, some with melted garden hoses still in their hands.

Black Saturday

Thank you, climate change

Bushfire weather in Australia has become more frequent over the past 30 years and Australia's climate comission has concluded that: "The intensity and seasonality of large bushfires in south-east Australia appears to be changing, with climate change a possible contributing factor."

Black Saturday

Not a new phenomenon

But fires as such are not a new phenomenon on the world's driest inhabited continent. And since they have always been a fact of life, Australia's fauna and flora have adapted to these conditions. Species that can deal with fires and their aftermath have thrived.

Black Saturday

Resist and fuel

Eucalyptus is one such species. The trees are true survivors when it comes to bushfires. But they don't just survive, they even promote fires. In fact, eucalyptus leaves contain an oil with such a high degree of octane that it can be used as fuel. The eucalyptus fares better in blazes than other trees, so fires help it eliminate competition.

Black Saturday


Several birds of prey, including the Black Kite take this a step further. They pick up burning branches from existing fires and drop them elsewhere to start new ones. As the flames spread, they drive small rodents and birds out of hiding, making it easy for the "firehawks" to catch them.

Black Saturday

Quick rebirth

Many fire-resistant plants, including some eucalyptus, posess a lignotuber. This thick woody section at their base contains buds from which new stems can sprout. They also store starch, which provides fuel for the plants to grow when they cannot photosynthesize. This allows them to rebound quickly after a fire.

New coal mines

Another sign of the Australian government's lack of committment around climate action are plans to mine more coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel and a major source of carbon pollution on the planet.

The conservative government is backing the construction of one of the world's largest coal mines, the so-called Adani mine located inland from the Great Barrier Reef.

In addition to high greenhouse gas emissions, the mine will also be a major drain on precious water resources. "While farmers struggle with drought, Adani's coal mine is allowed take up to 9 billion liters of groundwater and 12 billion liters of surface water every year," noted a tweet under the #StopAdani campaign on Twitter.

Across Australian media, there's a perception that fossil fuel profits come before the drastic need to preserve water and mitigate climate change. 

In response, political leaders are happy to recycle the idea that the climate has always changed.  

Read more: Four climate change myths, debunked

"We are the land of droughts and flooding rains," said Turnbull this week. "It's a very volatile and often capricious climate, and Australian farmers are resilient."

Yet as Australian carbon emissions continue to grow instead of decline, a widely predicted increase in drought and temperatures may ultimately force many of these farmers off the land.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry


An old dead tree lies like a skeleton on the scorched earth in a property located to the west of Tamworth, a rural (and country music) center in the state of New South Wales, Australia. Although still winter, 100 percent of New South Wales is now in drought, with the state of Queensland to the north also dry. The drought is expected to continue for months, and bushfire season has started early.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry


In what could be a scene from the red planet, a kangaroo's shadow is captured as the animal drinks from a water tank on a barren farm to the west of Gunnedah, a town in northwest New South Wales. Since the beginning of June 2018, the drought has continued unabated. "I have been here all my life, and this drought is feeling like it will be around a while," property owner Ash Whitney told Reuters.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

Fight for survival

Sheep have long been the backbone of the Australian agricultural sector, grazing the nation's vast open plains and providing meat and wool for international markets. But now farmers suffering from drought are having to shoot their sheep for lack of pasture. The federal government's drought relief package announced in August 2018 will not make up for stock losses.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

Weather patterns

A farmer ploughing arid land near Gunnedah inadvertently creates vast, eerily beautiful symmetrical patterns that ultimately signal crop failure. Greg Stones is a farmer who grows grains and runs livestock in the same area. "This would be the first time in two generations, back to the 1930s, that we haven't got a crop up in the autumn or winter time," he told AFP.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry


"The land is too dry ... We've put cattle on the highway [near the farm] for the first time in my life [so] they get a bit of rough grass," Greg Stones continued. This image from the far western town of Walgett in New South Wales shows a lone farmer attending to his water trough and tanks on his desolate, drought-stricken property in July 2018.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

Grain train

Sheep eat grain dropped on a desert-scape that was once once fertile grazing land on the outskirts of Tamworth in central New South Wales. But the extra feed is causing financial ruin. "This drought is longer and more widespread than any drought we've seen in over 50 years, so that's why we've got to provide additional support," said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull upon announcing an aid package.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

'Too late'

A farmer feeds his cattle branches cut from a tree on his property located west of Gunnedah in June 2018. Though aid has since been offered to these farmers, "It was probably a little bit late coming for some people. They didn't act fast enough," another nearby farmer, Col Barton, told AFP. The only hope now is rain.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

Cracked earth

Drought is a naturally occurring phenomenon across the highly arid Australian continent. This close-up view of the dried-out Wellshot Creek that runs through a cattle station in Longreach in the state of Queensland captured a 2014 drought that was the most widespread on record for the state. Around 80 percent of the region was affected.

'Worst drought in living memory': Australia's big dry

Millennium Drought

A lone cow sits in a parched paddock in northwest New South Wales in October 2006 during the longest widespread drought in history. Then, farmers also had to hand-feed stock. This big dry was worse and more widespread than ever before, posing a massive economic challenge to the Earth's driest inhabited continent and a debate about whether farmers should even run livestock on such marginal land.

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