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Article 1:
To help drought-affected farmers, we need to support them in good
times as well as bad
August 9, 2018
1. Jacki Schirmer
Associate Professor, University of Canberra
2. Dominic Peel
PhD Candidate in Public Health, University of Canberra
3. Ivan Charles Hanigan
Data Scientist (Epidemiology), University of Sydney
4. Kimberly Brown
PhD Researcher, University of Canberra
With  the  New  South  Wales  government  announcing  that  drought  is  now  affecting  the  entire  state,  
the  federal  government’s  crisis  assistance  payments  have  been  described  by  some  as  too  little,  too  
late.  The  National  Farmers  Federation  has  renewed  its  calls  for  a  national  drought  policy  and  drought  
experts  have  expressed  concern  about  reliance  on  emergency  handouts.  
With  droughts  predicted  to  grow  in  frequency  and  severity  in  the  future,  we  need  to  support  
farmers  and  their  communities  to  adapt  to  these  changes.  
To  best  support  the  well-­‐being  of  farmers  and  farming  communities,  we  need  to  support  them  not  
just  when  they  are  in  the  middle  of  a  drought,  but  also  when  the  rain  comes  and  the  dust  has  
settled.  An  emergency  response  is  important,  but  on  its  own  is  not  enough  -­‐  our  farming  
communities  deserve  more.  It  needs  to  be  accompanied  by  long-­‐term  coordinated  support,  
delivered  through  the  whole  drought  cycle,  that  helps  farmers  prepare  for  drought,  cope  with  
drought  when  it  is  happening,  and  recover  rapidly  afterwards.  
Prolonged  droughts  harm  the  health  and  well-­‐being  of  people  in  farming  communities,  although  
research  also  shows  that  not  everyone  is  affected  to  the  same  extent,  and  some  not  at  all.  This  
means  we  need  to  learn  from  past  experience  in  choosing  what  actions  represent  the  best  and  most  
effective  investments.  
Providing  farmers  with  emergency  assistance  when  drought  is  at  its  worst  helps  to  alleviate  the  most  
acute  hardship.  But  multiple  inquiries  and  research  studies  have  concluded  that  this  approach  is  not  
To  truly  support  the  well-­‐being  of  farming  communities  facing  the  threat  of  drought,  we  need  to  
invest  more  in  actions  that  support  their  preparedness  and  resilience  before  drought  hits,  rather  
than  waiting  until  conditions  are  at  their  worst  before  offering  help.  
Australia  in  Drought  
PAGE  1  
The  hydro-­‐illogical  cycle  
Doing  this  requires  breaking  the  “hydro-­‐illogical  cycle”,  in  which  a  severe  drought  triggers  short-­‐term  
concern  and  assistance,  followed  by  a  return  to  apathy  and  complacency  once  the  rains  return.  
When  drought  drops  off  the  public  and  media  radar,  communities  are  often  left  with  little  or  no  
support  to  invest  in  preparing  for  the  next  inevitable  drought.  
Farmers  need  proactive,  long-­‐term  access  to  drought  preparedness  schemes  well  in  advance,  before  
the  effects  of  drought  begin  to  bite.  Farmers  who  use  programs  such  as  the  farm  management  
deposits  scheme,  which  allows  them  to  put  aside  surplus  income  in  good  years  and  draw  on  it  in  
difficult  ones,  have  higher  well-­‐being  during  droughts  than  those  who  access  emergency  assistance  
provided  during  drought.  
Our  research  has  also  identified  some  other  ways  to  protect  farmers’  well-­‐being  during  challenging  
times.  These  include  investing  in  forward  planning  for  drought,  supporting  farmers  to  invest  in  
“drought-­‐proofing”  measures  suitable  to  their  farm,  and  creating  networks  through  which  farmers  
can  share  their  knowledge  about  what  works  to  cope  best  with  the  financial,  psychological  and  social  
challenges  they  face.  
These  things  are  not  a  “fix”  for  drought;  a  drought  will  always  have  significant  impacts.  But  they  can  
help  reduce  the  severity  of  impacts,  and  the  time  taken  to  recover.  However,  to  really  be  effective,  
these  actions  need  to  be  invested  in  between  droughts,  in  addition  to  investing  in  emergency  
support  during  drought.  
We  can  learn  a  lot  from  the  actions  that  farmers  are  already  taking.  Thousands  of  farmers  have  
spent  years  investing  in  drought  resilience,  for  example  by  changing  pasture  types  and  water  
management  practices,  and  by  changing  how  they  plan  for  and  manage  periods  of  low  rainfall.  
This  investment  often  goes  unsupported  and  unrecognised,  and  has  to  be  done  among  the  ever-­‐
present  pressures  of  challenging  market  conditions,  low  profit  margins,  rising  costs,  the  need  to  
repay  debts  incurred  in  the  last  drought  or  flood,  and  the  myriad  daily  pressures  of  farming.  We  
need  to  better  reward  farmers  who  make  these  investments,  and  to  offer  incentives  for  continued  
investment  in  this  type  of  action  between  droughts.  
Regenerative  farming  
One  investment  being  made  by  many  farmers  across  Australia  is  the  adoption  of  regenerative  
farming,  in  which  the  entire  farming  system  is  re-­‐oriented  with  a  goal  of  better  using  natural  
ecosystem  processes  to  support  production,  and  of  better  matching  production  to  land  capacity  
through  different  climatic  conditions.  
Early  research  findings  suggest  that  engaging  in  regenerative  farming  can  improve  drought  
resilience.  But  shifting  to  use  of  this  approach  to  farming  takes  a  lot  of  time  and  investment;  before  
asking  farmers  to  make  fundamental  changes  to  the  way  they  farm,  we  need  more  research  that  
critically  examines  when,  where  and  how  different  farming  systems  can  help  safeguard  against  
As  well  as  helping  farmers  invest  in  actions  to  increase  resilience  to  drought,  we  also  need  to  
consider  the  best  ways  to  support  those  who  are  suffering  severe  psychological  and  financial  stress.  
For  many  farmers,  supporting  them  to  cope  with  drought  and  stay  in  farming  is  the  best  decision.  
But  for  others,  the  best  decision  can  be  to  leave  farming  altogether.  
Australia  in  Drought  
PAGE  2  
The  decision  to  leave  farming  is  understandably  one  of  the  most  challenging  times  in  a  farmer’s  life,  
and  often  happens  when  their  well-­‐being  is  low  and  they  are  experiencing  psychological  distress.  
This  means  that  the  quality  of  help  they  receive  during  this  time  can  make  a  big  difference  in  how  
well  they  cope.  Services  such  as  the  Rural  Financial  Counselling  Service  have  a  vital  role  to  play  at  all  
times  (before,  during  and  after  drought)  in  giving  advice  to  farmers  weighing  up  the  agonising  
decision  to  stay  or  leave.  
If  you  want  to  help  farmers,  keep  supporting  relief  funds  –  they  provide  essential  help  during  the  
worst  of  drought.  But  also  tell  your  local  politician  that  you  support  investment  in  long-­‐term  
programs  that  help  farmers  improve  their  resilience  to  the  next  drought,  and  the  one  after  that,  and  
that  recognise  and  reward  the  investments  farmers  are  already  making  in  doing  this.  
If  we  truly  have  our  farmers’  well-­‐being  at  heart,  we  should  be  taking  drought  action  in  wet  years  as  
well  as  dry,  and  in  good  times  as  well  as  bad.  
Article 2:
The lessons we need to learn to deal with the ‘creeping disaster’
of drought
November 9, 2016
1. Anthony Kiem
Associate Professor – Hydroclimatology, University of Newcastle
2. Fiona Johnson
Senior Lecturer, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UNSW
3. Seth Westra
Associate Professor, School of Civil, Environmental and Mining Engineering, University of Adelaide
Droughts  are  a  natural  feature  of  the  Australian  environment.  But  the  Millennium  drought  (or  “Big  
Dry”),  which  ran  from  1997  to  2010,  was  a  wake-­‐up  call  even  by  our  parched  standards.  
The  Millennium  drought  had  major  social,  economic  and  environmental  impacts).  It  triggered  water  
restrictions  in  major  cities,  and  prompted  severe  reductions  in  irrigation  allocations  throughout  the  
vast  Murray-­‐Darling  Basin.  
The  Millennium  drought  also  highlighted  that,  compared  to  the  rest  of  the  world,  the  impacts  of  
drought  on  Australia’s  society  and  economy  are  particularly  severe.  This  is  mainly  because  our  water  
Australia  in  Drought  
PAGE  3  
storage  and  supply  systems  were  originally  designed  by  European  settlers  who  failed  to  plan  for  the  
huge  variability  in  Australia’s  climate.  
Have  we  learned  the  lessons?  
Are  we  likely  to  fare  any  better  when  the  next  Big  Dry  hits?  It’s  important  to  reflect  on  how  much  we  
actually  understand  drought  in  Australia,  and  what  we  might  expect  in  the  future.  
Our  study,  part  of  the  Australian  Water  and  Energy  Exchanges  Initiative  (OzEWEX),  had  two  aims  
related  to  this  question.  The  first  was  to  document  what  is  known  and  unknown  about  drought  in  
Australia.  The  second  aim  was  to  establish  how  Australia’s  scientists  and  engineers  can  best  
investigate  those  unknowns.  
The  fact  is  that  despite  their  significance,  droughts  are  generally  still  poorly  understood.  This  makes  
it  hard  to  come  up  with  practical,  effective  strategies  for  dealing  with  them  when  they  strike.  
One  reason  for  this  is  that  unlike  natural  hazards  with  more  graphic  and  measurable  impacts  (such  
as  floods,  cyclones,  and  bushfires),  droughts  develop  gradually  over  huge  areas,  and  can  last  for  
years.  Often  they  go  unnoticed  until  they  trigger  widespread  water  or  food  shortages,  or  cause  
significant  energy,  economic,  health  or  environmental  issues.  
Drought  has  been  described  as  a  “creeping  disaster”,  because  by  the  time  a  drought  is  identified,  it  is  
usually  already  well  under  way,  the  costs  to  fix  it  are  mounting,  and  the  opportunity  to  take  
proactive  action  has  already  been  missed.  
This  is  complicated  still  further  by  the  uncertainties  around  defining,  monitoring  and  forecasting  
drought  –  including  predicting  when  a  drought  will  finally  end.  As  in  the  case  of  other  natural  
hazards  (such  as  drought’s  polar  opposite,  floods),  what  we  need  most  is  accurate  and  practically  
useful  information  on  the  likelihood,  causes  and  consequences  of  droughts  in  particular  areas.  
This  is  a  very  tricky  question,  not  least  because  we  still  need  to  come  up  with  a  rigorous  way  to  
distinguish  between  correlation  and  causation.  For  example,  are  increased  local  temperatures  
a  cause  or  a  consequence  of  drought?  
The  complications  don’t  end  there.  Because  droughts  are  so  much  slower  and  bigger  than  other  
natural  disasters,  they  therefore  have  much  more  complicated  effects  on  agriculture,  industry  and  
society.  Bushfires  can  be  devastating,  but  they  also  offer  ample  opportunities  to  learn  lessons  for  the  
next  time.  Droughts,  in  contrast,  give  us  limited  opportunities  to  learn  how  best  to  prepare.  
Yet  prepare  we  must.  Given  Australia’s  history  of  decades-­‐long  swings  between  wet  and  dry,  and  the  
fact  that  these  swings  are  projected  to  grow  even  stronger,  drought  will  be  a  key  concern  for  
Australia  for  a  long  time  to  come.  
What  to  do  next  
We  therefore  make  several  recommendations  to  help  boost  our  understanding  and  management  of  
Australia  in  Drought  
PAGE  4  
1).  Reconsider  the  way  drought  is  defined  and  monitored  to  remove  confusion  between  drought  
causes,  impacts  and  risks.  Similarly,  there  is  also  a  need  to  better  distinguish  between  drought,  
aridity,  and  water  scarcity  due  to  over-­‐extractions.  
The  simplest  definition  of  “drought”  is  a  deficit  of  water  compared  with  normal  conditions.  But  what  
is  normal?  How  long  does  the  deficit  have  to  persist,  and  how  severe  does  it  need  to  be,  to  be  
considered  a  drought?  What  is  meant  by  water:  rainfall,  snow,  ice,  streamflow,  water  in  a  storage  
reservoir,  groundwater,  soil  moisture,  or  all  of  these?  
The  answers  to  these  questions  depend  very  much  on  the  local  situation  in  terms  of  climate  and  
water  use,  which  varies  significantly  in  space  and  time  and  is  why  the  simplest  definition  of  drought  
is  insufficient.  We  need  to  develop  drought  definitions  that  clearly  differentiate  drought  from  long-­‐
term  changes  in  aridity  and  water  scarcity,  and  that  capture  drought  start,  duration,  magnitude  and  
spatial  extent.  Such  definitions  should  account  for  the  differences  between  Australia’s  climate  zones,  
the  wide  variety  of  end-­‐users  and  applications  of  drought  monitoring  information,  and  the  diversity  
of  droughts  that  have  occurred  in  the  past.  There  needs  to  be  a  common  understanding  of  what  a  
drought  is  and  the  differences  between  drought,  aridity  and  human-­‐induced  water  scarcity.  
2).  Improve  documentation  of  droughts  that  took  place  before  weather  records  began,  in  roughly  
1900.  This  will  improve  our  understanding  of  Australia’s  long-­‐term  “baseline”  drought  characteristics  
(that  is,  how  bad  can  droughts  get?  how  doe …
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