20 Jan 2022

NIWA predicts drought for top and bottom of the country

10:01 am on 20 January 2022

Parts of Aotearoa may have to prepare for a third consecutive year in drought.

Landscape of Otago region viewed from Central Otago Railway bicycle trail in New Zealand

File photo: Landscape of Otago region. Photo: 123rf.com

Although spring rain may be keeping some hopeful, it is getting dry rapidly, with many farmers seeing their land dry out before their eyes in recent weeks.

The driest parts of the country are at opposite ends - Northland and Southland.

NIWA's drought index is rating one part of Southland, dry, another very dry and a small part south east of Invercargill extremely dry.

Sheep, beef and dairy farmer in Glenham, east of Invercargill, Dean Rabbiage said it had been a year like no other.

"The best way to sum it up would be that spring was considerably wetter, and summer's been considerably drier," he said.

He was getting half his expected rainfall.

"We sort of expect and rely on between 10 to 20mls of rainfall weekly, so that we can have pasture production matching our feed requirements. So without that, that's made things a wee bit tighter.

And he said Covid could throw a spanner in the works for farmers across the country.

"I guess it's also in the back of everybody's mind, the potential closures at meatworks because of Covid, that having surplus feed around at this time of year would be beneficial."

If a meat processing plant worker test positive, the plant may have to shut down, meaning farmers may need to keep stock.

Dry conditions could affect their ability to get enough feed for the stock they might have to keep.

Southland's regional council Environment Southland staff were keeping a close eye on water levels and soil moisture.

"In any situation where there is a water shortage, we convene our scientists and staff from monitoring and evaluation, regulatory and land sustainability teams to develop an action plan based on current and predicted information," its catchment integration manager Fiona Young said in a statement.

"This team works closely with farming and industry leaders, and the Ministry for Primary Industries to provide information and support for farmers and landowners."

Northland Rural Support Trust coordinator Rebekah Sulman said she was taking calls from distressed farmers.

Their first problem was the Kaimaumau fire, burning for more than a month.

That problem had been exacerbated with the winds off the back of Cyclone Cody.

"The wind changes have made it really challenging for the team up there and of course, that's putting pressure on the farming community because they don't know when the fire front might be heading their way," she said.

"[Farmers] are spending quite a bit of time looking out the window and seeing things drying out before their eyes, for example the grass growth has dropped and that dramatically in the past ten days, and that's due to our high temperatures that we're experiencing and those winds as well."

NIWA's meteorologist Ben Noll was keeping a close eye on the dry, hot conditions across the country.

"If we don't see rainfall over the next two weeks or so, I would expect that some regions may enter meteorological drought around New Zealand."

He said it was not quite as bone dry as previous years, but he was certainly still concerned.

"When you talk about the third consecutive summer, where we're seeing very to extremely dry conditions, this is quickly becoming almost the norm in some areas."

With 2021 being New Zealand's hottest year on record, Noll said he would not be surprised if in the future, droughts started earlier, in spring.