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Canterbury farmers fear drought as region driest in a decade

Canterbury farmers fear drought as region driest in a decade

By Suze Metherell

Jan. 6 (BusinessDesk) - Canterbury is on the verge of a 20th century-style drought with the southern region the driest it has been in a decade, forcing farmers to sell surplus stock and leading to restrictions on irrigation as the area waits for rain.

Soil moisture in eastern and southern Canterbury is between severely and extremely drier than normal, while the outlook for rain remains light, according to data from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa). The region, which suffered crippling droughts through the 1970s to 1990s, is the driest it has been in a decade, Ivon Hurst, Federated Farmers' South Canterbury president, told BusinessDesk.

“We are in what you would call a drought – not an emergency, official drought where the government has to come in and give assistance, but there is no moisture in the ground, we have a consistently dry weather pattern," Hurst said. "If we do get rain at this stage then we’re saved and we’ll have a good season, but I very much doubt that – the weather pattern is too stable. It’s got the same feel as the big droughts we had in the last century."

The New Zealand government declares droughts on the advice from the Ministry for Primary Industries, after it has been approached by affected farmers. A spokesman for Nathan Guy, the Minister for Primary Industries, said as far as he was aware the ministry hadn't been approached by farmers in dry regions of Canterbury, while the ministry said it continued to monitor the dry conditions. Niwa, the crown's climate research institute, advises the ministry on weather conditions.

“Under these current conditions, if widespread meaningful rainfall doesn’t occur then drought may be imminent where there is severe or extremely drier than normal soils for this time of the year," Niwa forecaster Chris Brandolino said. “There is going to be some minor rain and when you’re as dry as we are in southern Canterbury and eastern Canterbury it's helpful, but if you’re running a huge deficit it helps but you need a lot more to make a substantial dent."

Canterbury dry-land farmers, such as sheep and beef farmers, are selling off excess stock while irrigators are facing restrictions on water under the agreement between farmers and Environment Canterbury. South Canterbury lowland rivers were completely shut off from irrigation, Fed Farmers' Hurst said, with only an environmental flow to keep fish alive.

“Irrigators should be more insulated but this year they were caught out because there has been no snow up in the hills to give them any bank of water and they had to start irrigating a month earlier than they normally would have," Hurst said. If lowland rivers "keep dropping the way they are, and they're dropping pretty rapidly now, fish and game will be out there saving salmon and trout as fast as they can go."

New Zealand's economy is largely agricultural, with dairy, meat and forestry the country's three largest export commodities, making up just under half of the country's annual $50.4 billion exports in the year to November, according to Statistics New Zealand. Over the 2012 and 2013 summer, the North Island's dairy hub, the Waikato, suffered its worst drought in 70 years, which the Treasury estimated knocked $1.5 billion out of gross domestic product in 2013.

Niwa's Brandolino said part of the North Island, such as the Wairarapa and areas of the Waikato, were also drier than normal.

"The Wairarapa region is extremely drier than normal, much like most of Canterbury," Brandolino said. "Eastern parts of the Waikato, like Coromandel, is actually pretty wet, but that’s the exception not the rule - the majority of the Waikato I would describe as much drier than normal to severely drier than normal."


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