Australia faces the end of Big Dry

A lamb stands in a dry paddock on the 10,000 acre property owned by the Orr family on January 26, 2010 in Parkes, Australia. Drought has had a devastating effect on farmers in Australia over the years

Phew! What a scorcher that was.

Australians call it the Big Dry and, after nine parched years, it's over.

It's the drought that has afflicted large areas of this vast country and now the federal government has officially declared it at an end.

The final two areas to be given the all-clear are Bundarra and Eurobodalla in the south-eastern state of New South Wales.

In practical terms, it means that the last of special subsidies to farmers are being withdrawn.

It's the end of "Exceptional Circumstances", or EC, to use the bureaucratic jargon.

"The seasonal outlook is brighter than it has been for many years and the improved conditions are a welcome reprieve for farmers across Australia," said Joe Ludwig, Australia's agriculture minister.

He said the end of the drought would be a "a major milestone for agriculture in Australia".

Since 2001, the government has provided 4.5bn Australian dollars ($4.7bn, £2.9bn) in EC assistance.

That's the money handed out to struggling farmers, totalling between 400 and 600 dollars each, every fortnight.

'Baffling'

Some farmers say the move to take away the EC assistance is premature.

The National Farmers Federation said the government's "snap decision" to cut subsidies was "baffling".

A 10,000 acre property owned by the Orr family on January 26, 2010 in Parkes, Australia. Some farmers are opposed to declaring the end of drought

"With no areas likely to be drought-declared in the near future and with a programme to develop alternatives already under way, we ask the question of government: why the rush?" the federation's president Jock Laurie said.

Australia's current drought really took hold from 2003 and, depending on the area, has lasted on and off ever since.

But this, the driest inhabited continent, has lived with the scourge of drought throughout its entire history.

Long history

One of the first recorded was in 1803 when there were severe crop failures in New South Wales.

Another, devastating nationwide drought followed in 1902, just after Australia became a federation.

During that one, the total sheep population halved, from just over 100 million to about 50 million.

It wasn't until 1927 sheep numbers recovered.

One of the longest dry periods lasted through the Second World War, from 1937 to 1947, with eastern Australia again the worst affected.

Other bad droughts followed at an interval of about one every decade.

And the pattern has been repeated into the 21st Century.

Australia is drought-prone because of its geography and changeable rainfall patterns.

It's located in a subtropical area of the world that produces dry, sinking air which creates clear skies and little rain.

That means for most of the country, the rainfall is very low and irregular.

Another cause of drought is the El Nino weather pattern.

When there are El Nino weather conditions, Australia becomes drier than normal and the chance of rain decreases.

Population pressures

The succession of droughts has lead some to question the future of population growth in Australia.

The environmental organisation, Sustainable Population Australia, says Australia cannot continue to maintain its current rate of population growth without becoming overpopulated, in terms of access to water.

Their calculation is all the more remarkable, given the current size of the population in relation to the vastness of Australia.

At the moment there are just under 23 million people in a country roughly the size of the United States, which has more than 300 million inhabitants.

The population of Australia is about the same as Texas.

But, even with only 23 million people, the pressures on water supplies are intense.

You only have to follow the caustic ebbs and flows of political debate over the Murray-Darling river basin to realise just how precious and divisive a resource water is.

This vast system, with the Murray and Darling rivers at its heart, covers most of the states of New South Wales, Victoria and parts of Queensland and South Australia.

The recent publication of an official report into its future made headline news, such is its importance to literally tens of millions of people, with everyone from farmers to industrialists to indigenous Australians, laying claim to a stake in the Basin's liquid bounty.

Yet, just when it seems that Australians are doomed to live in a land lacking in water, comes news from the Bureau of Meteorology that 2011 was the third-wettest year on record and the wettest since 1970.

It's this sustained onslaught of rain over the past two years, that has, in part, enabled the government to declare the end to droughts, even if, at the same time, it has also had to deal with the catastrophic flooding that has accompanied the deluge.

The voluminous precipitation of recent times has been largely due to the influence of La Nina, the contrary cousin of El Nino.

La Nina produced slightly warmer conditions in the western Pacific, creating more moist air, especially over the populated eastern states.

But, as with everything Australian, that is not the complete picture, as while the East has been swamped with rain and cool conditions, out West temperatures soared beyond 49 degrees.

That's just the way it is here, a people of moderation existing in a land of climatic extremes.

Finally, it is drought-free. At least for now.

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