Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

New Zealand hit by drought crisis

Farmer Peter Brown walks on the dry ground at his dairy farm near Ohinewai, New Zealand (AP)

New Zealand has officially declared its most widespread drought in at least 30 years.

The government said the entire North Island was a drought zone after adding several more regions to those already designated as suffering.

The official designation provides farmers some financial relief through increased government funding of rural groups and tax breaks. Farmers facing serious financial hardship will also be eligible to apply for temporary unemployment benefits.

The drought has forced dairy farmers to reduce their herds in a country which relies on the industry for export earnings. Farmers estimate the drought has so far cost them about one billion New Zealand dollars (£543 million).

Parts of the North Island are drier than they have been in 70 years and some scientists say the unusual weather could be a harbinger of climate change. There has been little significant rainfall in the northern and eastern parts of the country since October.

Dairy farmer John Rose has sent more than 100 of his cows to the slaughterhouse over recent weeks. He has had to thin his herd so the remaining 550 cows have enough to eat and is supplementing their diet with ground palm kernel as the grass in his fields withers.

"We try and make sure they've got water and shade during the day and do the best we can for them," he said. "It's very hard to remember when the last rainfall was."

Still, some are finding the dry, sun soaked days a boon. Vintners call the conditions perfect. And city dwellers are revelling in eating lunch outdoors or spending evenings at the beach in a Southern Hemisphere summer that never seems to end.

Farming, and dairy cows in particular, drives the economy in the island nation of 4.5 million and the drought is expected to shave about a percentage point off economic growth.

New Zealand's last significant drought was five years ago and also cost farmers billions.

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