Droughts are not 'declared' - so what makes a drought 'Official'?


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WeatherWatch.co.nz head forecaster Philip Duncan speaks with the Ministry for Primary Industries to make sense of it all.


Parts of New Zealand are very dry now, which is concerning many farmers and growers up and down the country with many asking us if we are going into a drought.

But what actually is a drought and who decides if we are in one?  

The process may not be quite what you think:

It’s a myth that the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) “declares a drought”.  In fact, the Government doesn’t declare a drought is present just like they don’t declare a river is flooded, or that there is snow on a mountain. However the Government may provide recovery assistance if it is requested, when it meets the criteria under the Primary Sector Recovery Policy

A drought should be acknowledged locally, well before the point State assistance is required to help recover from the ongoing impacts. 

Forget the term “drought declaration” - it’s an incorrect term. Instead, local authorities in the dry region(s) itself acknowledging a drought has formed.  Kind of like admitting you have a problem - sometimes that first step of admitting it is the hardest. This “acknowledgement" can come from a number of parties, but the ideal ones are either your local/regional council, and/or from NIWA. If either NIWA or Council acknowledge there is a drought this is in effect ‘declaring there is a drought’. 

When the community cannot cope with the drought (or any other adverse event) and need help, a request is presented to MPI - and MPI advise their Minister and the Government on the level of assistance that should be provided.

MPI uses a framework to classify the impact of adverse events as either localised, medium-scale, or large-scale. They consider things like mitigation options, physical impacts, social impacts, and economic impacts. Recovery measures are only provided in medium or large scale events. 

The word “acknowledge” is key to droughts. It basically means we have to be honest about whether a drought has formed - and if so, is it severe enough that the State needs to step in and help communities recover. We also need to build resilience in our communities to manage through these types of adverse events, as best we can. 

Having a drought acknowledged in a region doesn’t instantly help a farmer financially, but it can provide the right support networks for them. Remember being in a drought isn’t just financial, it’s the personal and emotional stresses you are put through too - and sometimes this is the biggest part of coping with a drought.

It’s very important to know that if you already need help you do not need a Drought to be in place, you can already reach out for help from the Government - it does not need any local authorities to officially say anything. Talk to your farm advisor, banker, industry body representatives, and your local Rural Support Trust. 

Some farmers and Council don’t like to acknowledge a drought either - for a variety of reasons, some as basic as a belief that the State shouldn’t help out unless truly dire. A crisis, in other words. Some even see it as a sign of weakness to ask for help.

A medium-scale adverse event classification and the provision of recovery measures only occur after the impacts of an event are beyond the ability for the community to cope - a bit like a Civil Defence emergency happens after a tropical storm hits, rather than before it arrives. It really is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff there to help.

We thank MPI for better explaining the process for us to share with the New Zealand public.

As for "Are we going into a drought this summer?" which we have been asked quite a bit lately, WeatherWatch.co.nz says it's still too early to know with some rain makers brushing the edges of New Zealand over the next 10 days there will be some relief, but one month of exceptionally dry weather isn't long enough. In New Zealand our weather can change quickly (just look how we transitioned from the extra wet winter to an extra dry late spring). With warmer waters around the country there is a GOOD chance of rain makers forming in the New Zealand area - BUT - the block of high pressure does need to break up first - if that happened it's possible we could transition back to being very wet again. Hopefully we find the right balance this summer and end up getting relief everywhere, however long term trends do suggest some parts of New Zealand may kick off January 2018 on a much drier than usual note and we maintain "pockets of droughts" are possible around the nation. We'll keep you posted on how things are shaping up.

For more information on Dealing with Drought Conditions please click/tap here to read more via MPI's website.

- By Philip Duncan, WeatherWatch.co.nz (with advice from the Ministry for Primary Industries)