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Australian drought easing but not over: experts

by Staff Writers
Sydney (AFP) March 2, 2008
Australia's worst drought in a century is finally showing signs of easing, giving devastated farmers reason for hope as the southern hemisphere autumn begins, forecasters said.

The National Climate Centre (NCC) said Australia enjoyed its wettest summer in about seven years, effectively ending the drought in some areas, although many more remain parched by the phenomenon known locally as "The Big Dry".

"The outlook is reasonably promising, it's one of the more encouraging summers we've seen for a while," NCC climatologist Blair Trewin told AFP.

Trewin said much of the rainfall has been localised, causing flooding in areas of Queensland and New South Wales states during January and February.

He said Australia had experienced two droughts in recent years, a short-term one affecting much of the country's south-east which began in 2006 and a longer-term one that has impacted on some areas for up to a decade.

Trewin said the worst-hit areas over the long term were south east Queensland state, southern Victoria and south west Western Australia, as well as the Murray-Darling river basin, the country's agricultural heartland.

"That short-term drought is essentially behind us now," he said.

"However, we've had in many areas a period of five to 10 years where there has consistently been low rainfall over sustained periods."

He said the El Nino weather pattern associated with the drought was over and farmers were hopeful it would be followed by a La Nina, which usually brings high rainfall.

"The rainfall in New South Wales and Queensland is showing the patterns of a La Nina and the indications are that will continue in the autumn, which tips the odds in favour of above normal rainfall in south-eastern Australia.

"As to whether we get the sustained heavy rains needed to make a long-term difference is still a very open question."

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.

National Farmers Federation president David Crombie said the recent rains were "hugely beneficial".

"What we've seen is a good old-fashioned summer wet season pattern," he told Australian Associated Press.

"I think the rain has just brought a lot of heart to a lot of producers who've really being going through some very tough times."

He pointed out, however, that 60 percent of Queensland was still officially in drought.

"The fact that we've had rain doesn't mean that the need for drought assistance disappears overnight," Crombie said.

Australia's federal government has committed more than three billion dollars (2.64 billion US) to drought relief since 2001.

Official figures released last month showed drought cut 10 percent off the value of Australia's agricultural production in 2006-07, taking total output down to 34.2 billion dollars (32.3 billion US).

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