Australia’s drought has prevailed since 2015 with the past two years being extremely tough on agriculture. The last time drought was this persistent was from 2003 to 2007, and its impact on agriculture and the economy was significant as well. The past two years have been especially harsh, resulting in dramatic reductions in livestock herds and dryland crop production in both the winter and summer crops. Relief is not imminent but could occur if El Niño continues to wane and the solar minimum occurs as expected.
Even though Australian droughts are not totally induced by El Niño, the phenomenon does have a significant impact on their evolution and persistence. A notable cut in wheat and barley planted acreage has occurred this year because drought conditions were too intense for dryland planting to be successful. It is now too late to plant small grains, and that leaves the nation facing yet another short crop in a series of years with similar impacts.
The current drought has its roots in 2014-15 when a significant El Niño event began to influence the nation and the world. The 2014 El Niño began in the fourth quarter and lasted through all of 2015 and into the second quarter of 2016. The El Niño event rivaled the one of 1997-98 and was responsible for significantly drying parts of southern Asia, New Zealand and eastern Australia. The impact was much more far reaching than the Pacific Rim nations, but for the purposes of this article we will stop there.
Eastern Australia has a huge correlation with below-average rainfall and El Niño events. The stronger and more persistent the El Niño events, the greater impact they have on eastern Australia’s commerce, including agriculture.
A weak La Niña followed the 2014-16 El Niño event, but it was not strong enough to break the drought. When a new round of El Niño conditions evolved in 2018, it did not take long for the drought to reach extreme levels. There was some improvement in rainfall across eastern Australia in 2016 and 2017, but it failed to be enough, and when El Niño returned, it took very little time to push water supply into a critical mode.
The following two summers were oppressively hot, and rainfall was minimal, which further depleted soil moisture and water supply. Conditions became so desperate that ranchers had to sell off their livestock to make ends meet. Water supply dried up, and grazing grasses were hard to come by. It became so dry in the summers of 2018 and 2019 that excessive heat waves evolved and the heat only exacerbated the drought status. Water supplies further receded, and since the winter of 2018 was not a very good period for precipitation, it did not take long before another hot, dry summer emerged.
Winter wheat, barley and canola production were reduced in the winter and spring of 2017, 2018 and again this year, although this year’s crop is far from being complete. The biggest reason for crop losses in 2019 will be due to limited water supply. Irrigated and unirrigated land was often too dry for much seeding this autumn. Water restrictions and lower grain prices left little incentive for planting, and many farmers may be glad of their decision to not plant given the extremely limited water supply that is present today.
As of late July and early August Australia’s urban water supply was still quite favorable with each of the major cities in the nation reporting 42% to 75% of the full capacity in water supply. That may sound bad, but after a few years of drought that is really quite outstanding and implies that the more populated areas in Australia will make it another year or two if necessary with the dwindling water supply. However, that is not the case in rural Australia.
Farmland water supply is dangerously low, and because of that there has not been much, if any, dryland planting of wheat, barley or canola in eastern Australia this season. A general decline in irrigated plantings of sorghum, cotton and other crops also occurred during the summer. In late July the water supply in most of the key water catchment basins in eastern agricultural areas of Australia reported storage levels of 5% to 26% with two exceptions.
The Murrumbidgee catchment was reporting water storage at 41% of full capacity while the lower Darling catchment was reporting 1% of capacity. Those storage percentages are averages over each of those catchments. Individual lakes and water reservoirs were nearly exhausted of usable irrigation water, and recent rainfall was rarely enough to induce significant runoff.
The exception has been in the Murray river system, which serves the southeastern corner of the nation. That basin was reporting water storage of 37% to 52% with the exception of the Owens catchment, where 75% of the usual water supply was available.
Obviously with the limited soil moisture and water supply that is present in east-central Australia today it will be a long time before any planting takes place. Crops that were planted earlier in the year will continue to struggle for survival while the wait for significant rain continues.
The next few weeks will bring on more frequent rain from Western Australia to New South Wales and Victoria. Some moisture also will reach into southern New South Wales. Dryland and irrigated crops in these areas may experience improved crop development, and the prospects for more favorable production should steadily rise. East-central Australia, however, is not likely to get much rain, and that will leave crops struggling for moisture. The fate of planted wheat, barley and canola in New South Wales and Queensland will be totally dependent upon rainfall this spring. Obviously there already has been a significant cut in area planted to winter grain and oilseeds. A similar cut in spring and summer crops is possible this year if the situation does not soon change.
The drought of 2003-07 ended near the solar minimum of 2008, and another drought in the early 1980s also ended ahead of the solar minimum in 1986. Another solar minimum is expected in this coming year, and some producers are hoping that drought will break down at that point. World Weather, Inc. believes the breaks from drought had more to do with La Niña events than the solar minimums, but many La Niña events of significance occur shortly after the solar minimum. That leaves room to believe that the current drought will break in 2020-21, but that leaves another year of struggle for the nation’s eastern agricultural areas.
El Niño is expected to dissipate, and it is hoped that just the absence of El Niño will be enough to begin a period of improved rainfall. However, the most abundant eastern Australia rainfall may be longer in coming.