A bit of rain doesn't fix a potential drought problem for New Zealand

dry nz We are entering an era - if we haven't already - where patterns of rainfall we have planned for are likely to be disrupted, meaning that we have to think carefully about how we live as new patterns emerge.

Drought for farmers means more than just a bit of dry grass. In the cities, we certainly need to be mindful of our water usage and conservation, but the serious economic, social and emotional effects of drought are often underestimated by city-dwellers. Droughts can be classified as a natural hazard – a fact that is often overlooked.

For those whose livelihoods are disrupted by water shortages, the primary impact tends to be experienced economically. The agricultural industry plays a fundamentally important role in New Zealand’s economy, directly accounting for 4.5 per cent of GDP, with the water-intensive dairy industry making up 48 per cent of gross agricultural production in 2013.

Uncertainty regarding water supply looms large over farmers, not only from a climate change perspective, but also through possible mooted changes to the Resource Management Act. Winter animal feed supplies are being used early, meaning that it is likely to be scarcer and more costly later on. The irrigation season could also shut down weeks earlier than usual, and groundwater levels in some areas are at the lowest level in 30 years.

Couple these with falling global commodity prices, including milk products, and the scenario begins to look very challenging, especially on the back of the last big dry period in 2013. All this strain on the rural agricultural economy may flow through to the urban centres in many ways, perhaps most widely felt through food prices. Power prices may also be affected if hydroelectric production capacity is affected.

Economic loss may also be associated with a higher risk of emotional distress. People may experience heightened or overwhelming anxiety, constant worrying, and trouble with sleeping. Reactions can vary from person to person but these are common responses to disasters like droughts. However, the social and psychological effects of living through drought can be subtler when compared to other hazards, and may be experienced over a different, and potentially longer time cycle. They can affect families and whole communities and towns, with flow on effects throughout the country.

It used to be that droughts were not commonplace, occurring approximately every five years. As these events become more regular, it is likely that we no longer experience them as one-off events. The impact of this is cumulative. Financial implications are likely to be carried forward into the next economic planning cycle and there may be a lag in putting into place the processes to mitigate for future risk. We can then no longer recover from using existing systems and resources available to us.

Voluntary and then mandatory conservation measures were enough to see cities through the droughts of the past. We cannot rely on the model any more. Shifting climatic conditions require a shift from one-off crisis management planning to more sustainable planning for periods of low water availability. and/or higher costs associated with water scarcity such as winter feed or increased power prices. This affects both rural and urban communities, and many communities are uniting to face this challenge. Much more still needs to be done.

More frequent periods of drought with shorter periods of adequate rainfall and competition for water resource such as through population growth, mean that there needs to be renewed efforts to develop ways to effectively manage existing water sources. Urban populations can still be tied up in the notion that water is available in unlimited quantities, and has a low cost. The emphasis on conservation of wasted water may have got cities through the droughts of the past. The demand of the agricultural sector on this precious limited resource may mean increased scrutiny on issues of water management, perhaps setting up a much needed debate on the use of water throughout New Zealand.