Water shortages threaten farming

Two new Australian reports have highlighted the severe challenge facing the country's agricultural sector in the future as a result of water shortages.

In the future farmers are twice as likely to need financial help from the government as a result of increasingly low rainfall and low soil moisture, according to Drought – Exceptional Circumstances.

The report, prepared by the Bureau of Meteorology and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), warns that the areas that will be hit by drought are also likely to expand in the future.

A CSIRO report released just days earlier looking at climate change adaptation for the agricultural sector said three quarters of farmland fell into areas that were at high risk of future drought, particularly the Murray-Darling Basin, north-east New South Wales and south-east Queensland.

It called for better use of technology, evaporation control and probabilistic seasonal forecasts to be made available to farmers.

CSIRO scientist and co-editor of both reports Dr Mark Howden told edie it was not yet possible to predict whether Australian agriculture could continue on its current scale with the same crops.

He added: “At a very general level, we can expect to see some industries such as the rice industry and irrigated dairy industry in the Murray Basin having major challenges in continuing in their current form and size.”

Asked if desalination was the answer to agricultural water shortages, Dr Howden said: “It would only be a rational option if the energy was available from renewable or other low GHG sources and if farming was the best economic use of that resource. In both cases this is challenging in Australia currently.

“Changes in practices to be more efficient in the use of water on a specific crop are already happening.

“As is change from activities with lower dollar-per-litre returns, such as irrigated dairy, being replaced by those with higher returns, such as viticulture.”

The National Farmers’ Federation said the agricultural sector now needs investment to help it adapt to future climate challenges.

President David Crombie said: “Farmers can and will adapt to climate change provided they have access to the right research and development, targeted to new technologies and that enable them to make informed decisions.”

Kate Martin

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