Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Prepared by: Ann Hamblin, Bureau of Rural Sciences, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06748 5
Accelerated erosion and loss of surface soil (continued)
In 1992 the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments agreed to a National Drought Policy, this policy was reaffirmed in 1994 and reviewed in 1997. It was developed to encourage primary producers and other rural sectors to adopt self-reliant approaches to managing climate variability, to protect the environment during periods of extreme climatic stress, and to ensure early recovery after such events. This policy stemmed from the growing realisation that, in the past, government assistance had actually exacerbated resource degradation, rather than acknowledging that drought and climatic variability are intrinsic features of the continent's climate. The implicit driver was that farming practices must incorporate risk management strategies.
The introduction of the policy was followed by a very long period of widespread drought in much of north-eastern Australia (Figure 21). The pressures thus generated were aggravated because the drought followed a period of high interest rates and the collapse of commodity prices, particularly for the wool industry. As a result, the emphasis the policy placed on self-reliance was a severe challenge. By 1994 it was acknowledged that the extent and severity of the 1990s drought phase of the Southern Oscillation Index was exceptional, and a provision was made for 'drought exceptional circumstances' (DEC). This enables producers to apply for Commonwealth financial support (interests rate subsidies and welfare payments, as in the pre-National Drought Policy era). A DEC declaration depends upon an objective scientific assessment and the independent advice of the National Rural Adjustment Advisory Council (NRAAC), but the actual decision lies with the Commonwealth Cabinet.
Figure 21: Distribution of periods of exceptional drought (less than 5% of long-term average rainfall for 12 months or more) from January 1990 to December 1994 and January 1995 to December 2000.
Source: Bureau of Meteorology (unpubliished data)
The 1997 review (White and Bordas 1997) reaffirmed the aims and commitment of governments to the National Drought Policy. Governments agreed to continue to encourage farmers to further increase the level of self-reliance and profitability of enterprises, and increase the duty of care to the environment:
'Drought is one of several sources of uncertainty affecting farm businesses and is part of the farmer's normal operating environment ... Its effects can be reduced through risk management practices which take all situations into account, including drought and commodity price downturns.'
-Council of Australian Governments (1992a)
The main focus of the National Drought Policy is on developing farm risk management practices that can take account of climate variability. These include:
- agistment and de-stocking arrangements,
- maintaining conservative stocking rates to ensure ground cover at all times,
- utilisation of financial risk strategies such as hedging, forward selling, and off-farm diversification, and
- a parallel increase in investment for research and information transfer on climate modelling, forecasting and monitoring of vegetation condition.
Research investment resulted in the establishment of the National Climate Centre and the expansion of other Bureau of Meteorology activities with increased use of websites, media outlets and training schemes. State agencies have undertaken similar research and development, aimed at integrating climate science into existing farm extension services, while private climate consultants are now common in some regions.
DEC hinged on the definition of a 'rare and severe event', determined as meteorological drought, or a rainfall deficiency with a statistical frequency of only once in 20 to 25 years and greater than 12 months in duration. Following the determination of the meteorological trigger, the assessment then focussed on assessing the agronomic impact, with analysis of the effectiveness of the rainfall and temperature on vegetation condition. This was considered to be an acceptable threshold to trigger government intervention in farming regions where most of the natural climate variability was planned for in farm risk management strategies. However, a meteorological criterion was criticised by state governments, who argued that rainfall and biophysical measures alone are a poor indicator of agricultural variability.
In 1998 new assessment criteria were developed, defining 'exceptional circumstance' (EC) events as those caused by a rare event occurring once in 20 to 25 years, with a severe impact on farm income, or the lowest rainfall in 25 years. In 1999 the Commonwealth government allowed other natural events (e.g. floods, frosts, pest incursions) to be considered as well as drought under a broader exceptional circumstances policy. The downturn in farm income was to be tied specifically to the rare event that was not predictable, or as a normal part of structural adjustment. The event and impact on farm income had to be experienced by the majority of farmers in a region or industry. The 'rare event' criterion was maintained to ensure that a decline in farm income was not the result of land degradation
Many of the other events now included in EC are, in fact, also part of the normal cycles of Australia's climate. Rare late and early frosts, for example, tend to occur when skies are cloudless, and a high incidence of flooding tends to occur in La Nia (very rainy) periods following El Nio periods. They are not, 'exceptional' but part of a cyclic, repeating pattern. (See the Atmosphere Theme Report.) Similarly, many of the invertebrate insect species evaluated as pest incursions under EC have population dynamics closely associated with rainfall and temperature variability.
The emphasis on farm outputs (production levels or farm income) has created difficulties in assessing EC at the regional and local level, as objective data and information for these indicators are usually more applicable to broader-scale analyses. In many cases, considerable time is required to refine the objective data used in the assessment, with the Commonwealth asking the affected region and states to provide more relevant local information. NRAAC has often been required to make a judgement on less than complete information, leading to decisions being questioned.
Multi-criteria assessment have made it difficult to keep the approach to exceptional circumstances objective and transparent in all cases. The number of times that regions have applied for exceptional circumstances is shown in Figure 22. The successful applications during the same period are given in Figure 23. When Figure 23 is compared with the distribution of 5 percentile droughts in the same period (Figure 21) the differences are apparent. The obvious conclusion is that the system requires further refinement if the objectives of the NDP are to be met.
Figure 22: Total applications for exceptional circumstances by regions.
Source: Bureau of Resource Sciences, Exceptional Circumstances Unit
Figure 23: Successful applications for exceptional circumstances by regions.
Source: Bureau of Resource Sciences, Exceptional Circumstances Unit
When climatic events only are very infrequent, their effect is not appreciated by younger generations that have not experienced them. Risk management strategies that are commonplace when events are regular are not understood if the events are not expected.
There have been only three or four really wet years in the past century across most of inland Australia (1890, 1955, 1974, 1999), with similar, infrequent periods of severe drought persisting for more than a year (1895-1904, 1940-1944, 1962-1965, 1982-1983, 1992-1994). Frequently, if the east is experiencing drought the west may be having good seasons, and vice versa. In south-western Western Australia the last period of poor rains before the exceptionally dry 2000 season occurred during the late 1970s. One consequence of this variability is the difficulty both farmers and urban Australians have in understanding the nature of the continent.
One of the most intractable problems that the National Drought Policy faces today is that producers have come to identify it with a general period of structural adjustment, high debt, low commodity prices and withdrawal of government services (Hassalls and Associates 1997). This has led to political hostility to the policy, without acceptance of the long-term threat that former policies posed to natural resource management.
In some instances the prolonged downturn of wool prices in particular (now in its 12th consecutive year for all but fine wools), may eventually lead to the realisation that there must be some retirement of land from current land uses, and more realistic appraisal of land use that matches land and climate suitability (Kerin and Hyder Consulting 2000). However, the situation does not appear markedly different from that described by Francis Ratcliffe in 1938 in some parts of the rangelands (see Will we ever learn? )
The most problematic areas in many cases are those in which operational units are too small to provide a viable income. These are consistently associated with the 'Soldier Settlement' schemes of the post World War rural development era and particularly in regions where alternative sources of income generation are limited. In comparison, where alternative sources of economic activity have developed (such as mining, tourism, communication services) there are greater incentives to restore land and biodiversity for eco-tourism and greater regional wealth available to implement some of the changes needed in rangeland management, as exemplified by the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia.