Environment & energy, Trade and industry, Food & water | Australia, The World

12 July 2022

Climate change is worsening drought and water scarcity across the region and the world – the situation demands governments undertake ambitious reforms and Australia can lead the way, Md Roushon Jamal writes.

Droughts are one of the most widespread natural disasters in the world. Along with tropical cyclones, droughts also are among the most costly disasters for a population due to their ability to affect vast areas for a prolonged period of time.

Because drought is a prolonged water shortage, it can have flow-on effects on food security, prices, and trade far beyond the drought’s immediate location. Crucially, droughts are exacerbated by climate change and are expected to worsen as the globe warms.

The frequency of droughts has already increased by 29 per cent since 2000, compared to the two previous decades. By 2050 more than 75 percent of the world could face drought.

The World Bank estimates that up to 216 million people could be forced to migrate by 2050 due to the effects of climate change, including droughts, declining crop productivity, sea-level rise, and increasing incidence of extreme weather events.

Comprehensive, robust, integrated, and holistic drought resilience policies can also contribute significantly to other climate and water policy goals and create optimism across the world when it comes to water and food security.

In this context, Australia’s drought resilience policy, run by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), has set an ambitious goal to reduce drought severity by 30 per cent in the next eight years.

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The country is investing $150 million in the agriculture and food sectors in the hope of adding $20 billion in value. The government aims to do this by increasing the value of Australian food exports by $10 billion, along with producing an additional $10 billion worth of high-quality protein products by 2030, partly by boosting drought resilience.

This policy initiative could lead the way in the region and the world in tackling drought vulnerability.

Australian state and territory governments also provide aid to drought-affected communities through the National Drought Agreement, which focuses on immediate support for drought-affected farmers and long-term resilience and preparedness investment.

This has included expanding the Farm Household Allowance, concessional loans, rural financial counselling and information services, and an emergency rebate scheme for farms whose water infrastructure is affected by the disaster.

It also involved $36.9 million of investment over five years to improve water security and drought resilience in the Great Artesian Basin, where weather radars and climate guides will help farmers understand and manage climate risks.

Australia’s program of drought resilience policy is drawing global policy-making attention and can set an example for other countries to follow. Recurring drought and water scarcity have forced drought-affected countries to undertake ambitious institutional and regulatory reforms and infrastructural investment across the world, and Australia’s initiatives can help these governments prepare for the future.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification has been working on improving drought resilience in collaboration with other agencies. Its calls for drought resilience policies from the Integrated Drought Management Program, a joint initiative of the World Meteorological Organization and the Global Water Partnership, are gathering steam.

Still, spending and ambition aren’t all that’s required. The achievement of drought resilience in Australia is not a given and will largely depend on carefully policy execution.

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National capacity for monitoring adoption should be strengthened and the current drought resilience movement must promote restoration of cultivable land, crop diversification, and intensification, increasing the competitiveness of Australia’s agriculture.

The potential for water banking in the Murray Darling Basin to increase drought resilience has been assessed and justified by research and should be implemented. Water banking has been practiced in Arizona and California for drought management.

This would involve storing excess water in aquifers during wet years for long periods and then recovering it in droughts.

Farming system research can also contribute to drought resilience more than it currently does. Drought resilient farming systems can protect agricultural profitability, strengthen the economic resilience and water security of regional communities, and build on the example Australia is setting.

Depending on water availability, soil type, fertility status, and market demand, region-specific sustainable farming systems should be implemented as a top priority.

Crop diversification, intensification, and farming system research can underpin the three major missions of drought resilience, future protein sources, and trusted agri-food exports identified by the CSIRO.

If executed well, Australia’s drought resilience policy could be a lesson for many drought-vulnerable countries like India, Spain, China, Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa, and food producers in the European Union.

In Australia, drought resilience funding has been secured, a comprehensive drought plan is in place, and innovative technologies are on hand. Ultimately, if it can overcome obstacles like low rates of adoption by farmers, it can be a world leader in sustainable agriculture policy.

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