Sydney (AFP) July 1, 2007
As severe water restrictions take effect in Australia's major agricultural area, experts say there are signs the country's worst drought in a century may finally be coming to an end. Torrential rain last week flooded parts of Victoria state, just weeks after a deluge hit New South Wales and left nine people dead.
The rains helped replenish dwindling dam levels in some of Australia's major cities but they were not widespread enough to prevent the government proceeding with a plan to cut water supplies to irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The restrictions, which take effect on Sunday, are expected to have a major impact on a region that grows 40 percent of Australia's agricultural produce and is regarded as the country's food basket.
"We must recognise that there are still many parts of the country that are still suffering from drought that haven't received enough rain yet," Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile said.
Vaile welcomed predictions from meteorologists that the "El Nino" weather cycle blamed for the drought was coming to an end, saying he hoped the recent rains were a harbinger of things to come.
"Now all we can do is hope and pray that that continues," he said.
"It's certainly a significant change from what we've had over the last four or five years."
The official rural forecaster, the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE), this month predicted the winter crop would increase more than 130 percent after timely rains in agricultural areas.
"Widespread autumn rainfall across the majority of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia has provided an ideal start to the 2007-08 winter cropping season," it said.
However, ABARE has declined to say whether the drought was over after declaring a premature end to the Big Dry in 2003 -- only for it to continue for another four years.
A key rainfall indicator, the Southern Oscillation Index, hit a 13-month high last week after the rains in the southeast of the country.
While it needs to stay high for at least another few months before the drought can be declared over, forecasters said it was a promising sign.
A separate Bureau of Meteorology report also released last week said that international models showed there was a good chance of that a drought-breaking La Nina weather pattern could soon form.
"After stalling for around a month, there are renewed signs from the Pacific Basin which are consistent with the early stages of a La Nina event," the report said.
"Furthermore, computer models have been unwavering in their predictions of a La Nina forming during winter."
The bureau said all major meteorological models was showing the same signs.
"The fact that all major international coupled models show further cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean over the coming months suggests there is a distinct likelihood of a La Nina event occurring in 2007."
El Nino is an occasional warming of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean that typically happens every four to seven years and disrupts weather patterns from the western seaboard of Latin America to East Africa for 12-18 months.
It is often followed by a La Nina weather pattern, which occurs when the Pacific cools, increasing rainfall.
earlier related report
Victoria state's Gippsland region, which earlier this month was suffering drought and the after-affects of fierce summer bushfires, has been innundated by days of heavy rain.
Scores of Gippsland residents have so far evacuated and some 350 more could be house-bound for three days until the flood waters recede, State Emergency Service (SES) officials said.
SES state operations director Trevor White said while no major rain was predicted for the next few days, the area was not yet in the clear.
"Unlike fires, the path of a flood can be very unpredictable," White said.
"Water levels will continue to rise and fall, so people need to stay on their toes until the water drains out.
"If flood waters don't subside by lunchtime today then the people who chose to remain behind may need to settle down for the next few days."
A combination of swollen rivers and a high tide caused by Saturday night's full moon resulted in the water peaking, in one area at 1.33 metres (more than four feet) above normal levels. But the water was now slowly receding, White added.
One Gippsland resident who has been stranded inside her house since Friday with only her cat for company said she felt inconvenienced but not threatened by her isolation.
Rhonda Curley, who lives on Burrabogie Island which is connected to the mainland by a man-made canal, said her pier was under 60 centimetres (two feet) of water.
"There's just water, lots of water," she told Australian Associated Press.
earlier related report
"We got a really big frost in November. Then it was so dry we couldn't keep any moisture on the vines. Then, because there was not a blade of grass anywhere, the kangaroos came. Then we couldn't keep the birds off them.
"We are down 100 percent. We've got nothing," he told AFP.
Fellow vigneron Justin Jarrett has a similar story; in some parts of his Orange property the ground is so dry it would be useless to plant vines while in others the drought has left plants stunted and fruitless.
"If the drought just continues as is, we are going to see vines that are struggling to produce fruit at all," he told AFP.
He too has been hit by capricious weather. "In February we had 80 millimetres (3.2 inches) of rain and we lost 100,000 dollars (84,000 US) worth of crop because it came with a hail storm," he shrugs.
Orange, with an average annual rainfall of more than 800 millimetres, is always one of the last places in Australia to be hit by drought and one of the first to recover.
But the prolonged dry has slashed rainfall and wine production in the pretty township this year will be down by about half. -- Vineyards in drought's grip -- It is a story replicated in vineyards around the country, most of which remain in the grip of the six-year drought.
In Australia's agricultural heartland further south, the Murray-Darling River region which is home to about 65 percent of the country's viticulture, grape growers labour under severe water restrictions.
"Even if we have got rain, production in the Murray Darling Basin is going to be down," said Stephen Strachan, of the Winemakers' Federation of Australia.
And while recent soaking rains have delighted wineries in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, most of the country's other vineyards are parched.
Strachan said 2007 has been a horror year for the country's 2,000 grape growers who have had to discount heavily because of the estimated 500 million-litre (110 million-gallon) wine glut.
They are now faced with drastic cuts to production due to the drought while a soaring Australian currency is hurting export earnings.
"They have had low prices and low yields -- it's plenty tough," said Strachan, conceding conditions will force some wineries out of business.
Strachan said national production will be down about 25 percent to 1.42 million tonnes in 2007 due to drought and frost -- the lowest yielding vintage for more than a decade.
The Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation has forecast the drought, coupled with rising export demand, will bring the national wine supply back into balance by 2008-2009, two years earlier than originally expected. -- Cold climate some comfort -- While Strachan can content himself with the knowledge that a reduction in the wine glut will raise prices, the winemakers of Orange take comfort in thinking they may be the future of an industry worth 4.8 billion dollars in annual sales.
Orange, near Mount Canobolas some 200 kilometres (124 miles) northwest of Sydney, does not have the viticulture history of the Hunter Valley, South Australia's Barossa Valley or the Margaret River in Western Australia.
But farmers here believe its reputation as a premium wine producing region will build as grape growers take advantage of heavier rainfall and cooler climate amid the threat of climate change.
Jarrett said there were many unknowns when it came to the impact of global warming on the region which only began seriously producing wine in the late 1980s.
"But what we do know is that by 2030-2050 we will be six degrees warmer than it is. If we go up by six degrees, your vines are going to need more water.
"What's going to happen in time is that vines are going to have to go further up the hill."
Dolle believes Orange's cool climate, soil and altitude make it a good place to produce wines, particularly whites.
"If there is a lack of water around Australia and an abundance of water here from rainfall, then theoretically we should benefit from that," he said.
Peter Robson, who runs Ross Hill, one of Orange's pioneering vineyards, said rising global temperatures could hurt wine production in warmer parts of the country.
"If these trends continue, the hot areas are not going to be able to grow white grapes," he said. "They are going to be buttery rubbish. Some of the reds are going to be iffy (questionable)."
But Strachan is circumspect, saying assessing the impact of climate change is a major priority for the industry but one which will only be done once a comprehensive research programme has been completed.
"Climate change is going to have a profound impact on our industry but just because you're in a hot region doesn't mean you won't be able to produce grapes."
Source: Agence France-Presse
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