Morrison Offers Drought Relief As Farmers Brace For Hot And Dry Conditions

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a multi-billion-dollar drought fund to help farmers prepare as weather conditions persist.

The $5-billion Future Drought Fund is the focus of a new assistance package unveiled at a national drought summit in Canberra on Friday.

Various state and federal government leaders, weather experts, rural groups, business and charities descended on the nation's "meeting place" to discuss the impacts of the current drought and its pressure points while devising plans for "relief, recovery and resilience".

"There's a lot more work to do, as we know," the prime minister said.

Executive Director of the government's commodity forecaster ABARES Steve Hatfield-Dodds acknowledged the response process was "complicated", adding farmers will "have to suffer through this slide for a while", while Drought Co-ordinator General Stephan Day described it as a "team sport".

The stats: What you need to know

About 40 percent of agricultural land in south-eastern Australia is experiencing one in 20-year drought conditions, particularly across all of NSW and into parts of Queensland. But the national picture is worth noting.

"Nationally, a smaller area has been affected than in previous events, such as the 2002/2003 drought which extended into Queensland," Hatfield-Dodds said.

"The extent is important because it impacts your options. If there are areas that aren't in drought adjacent, you have more options for fodder."

Scott Morrison pictured with Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Drought Co-Ordinator General Stephen Day. Image: Getty

The climate effects are currently severe, with unusually hot and dry conditions expected to continue for at least six months, according to the Bureau of Meteorology's Dr Peter Stone.

In the Murray Darling Basin, we've seen the third driest January to October period on record, with most of the area receiving less than half of its average rainfall this year.

Moisture levels have been low for much of the country this year, with deficiencies being "widespread and pronounced".

"Soil moisture figures, in many respects, are worse than the rainfall figures because evaporation rates have, in many parts of the country, been 50 percent higher than the long term average," he said.

"Recent rains have improved this picture somewhat but sustained rainfall would be required to materially provide improvement in soil moisture conditions."

As a result, winter crop production will be much lower in eastern Australia, and below average nationally.

Stone predicted the drought is likely to intensify in South Australia, Victoria and inland New South Wales over the next few months, while a "weak start" is likely for Queensland' dry land summer production.

But he said these elevated temperatures are occurring in a "predictable pattern of increasing frequency and intensity" that "can be planned for".

A key difference this time around also comes down to "favourable economic conditions", said Hatfield-Dodds. Livestock markets are operating with a historical range while sale prices "have held up" during the past 12 months.

He said on-farm stocks of feed and fodder were relatively high going into the drought. But months, or -- for some -- years later, the picture for farmers appears relatively different.

READ MORE: The One Thing That Could Help This Farming Family Through Drought

The Biffin dairy farming family is struggling with crippling costs of feed. Image: Emma Brancatisano
What is the government doing about it?

With a sobering climate outlook, the prime minister is focusing a lot of his efforts on drought proofing.

The federal government will initially commit $3.9 billion to the Future Drought Fund which is expected to reach $5 billion by 2028.

Only $100 million of that will be made available each year from 2020, with the money being allocated by a board of guardians to go towards water infrastructure and drought resilience projects.

But that isn't fast enough for some state leaders such as Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palszczuk, parts of whose state has been hit by drought for almost ten years.

"The farmers are hurting now, people are doing it tough," she said.

"There needs to be some more up-front money to help those who are doing it tough."

In addition, the prime minister announced extending drought assistance from 60 to 81 local councils,  $15.3 million more for mental health services, $30 million for charities to help at least 10,000 households in drought-affected communities and $50 million for emergency water infrastructure.

An online hub will help farmers' track down resources and assistance.  

The package brings the federal government's total drought assistance to almost $6 billion.

Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au